How to Be “Good” Without Being a Jerk About It

“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam [timber] out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” – The Bible, Matthew 7:5

Unethical work behavior has lessened, according to a survey done this year (presumably before the Enron and other scandals) by the Ethics Resource Center. “Only 22% of participating employees reported observing unethical conduct on the job, down from 31% in 1994,” the organization said.

Only one out of 10 said they felt pressure to compromise their ethical standards. That’s way down from the 29% that was given in 1994.

This sort of report scares me. Who are these people who are monitoring “ethical behavior” at work? And what sort of Big Brother world are they hoping for?

I don’t like the idea that some anonymous “resource center” that knows nothing about my company’s business or its business practices would snoop around asking questions. As if asking questions about “unethical conduct” would provide any sort of useful information.

What do these people mean by “unethical behavior”? Are they talking about taking the last cup of coffee from the coffee urn without making a new batch? Or about taking advantage of interns and falsifying financial reports?

The organization says that the best way for a boss to help employees “withstand the pressure” is to establish an ethics code, train employees about ethics, and then communicate with them on a one-on-one basis.

This, too, bothers me. What do they mean by “an ethics code”? My definition of “ethics” is a standard of conduct, based on one’s core values, that guides decisions and actions. So, what should I do? Print a version of the Ten Commandments or the Code of Hammurabi  and post it on the bathroom doors? Spend 30 minutes each morning teaching new employees how to tell the truth?

But that’s not what I dislike most about this report. What really bugs me is that there is a sort of “let’s-go-after-the-bad-people” aspect to the questionnaires and the advice. Employees are asked about the unethical conduct they have observed. What about the wrongdoings they have committed? The report advises business leaders on how to teach and train their employees in ethical practices. But what about all the sordid things the bosses themselves are doing?

You don’t need to spend your valuable time spying on fellow workers, judging their ethics, training them, teaching them, or even correcting them. What you need to do is simply:

  • Be good yourself.
  • Be compassionate to others.

If you follow those two commandments, you will be doing pretty much all that you can — and I’m not promoting the Big Brother, better-than-thou sort of management approach that organizations with scary, Orwellian names like the Ethics Resource Center promote.

Every ethical challenge at work can be resolved quickly and easily by being good and honest. If, for example, a colleague asks you to approve a phony document, you should, of course, refuse. You should demur not because you are trying to improve HIS ethics but because you are concerned about yours.

What about when you observe behavior that has nothing to do with your own?

Here is where the rule of compassion applies. Let’s take the guy in the corner office that parks his Mercedes in the handicapped-parking zone. Do you turn him in? Do you tell him off?

The answer depends on your motivation, not his behavior. If you are genuinely, honestly concerned that he might be blocking access to the handicapped, go ahead and do something. But if your motivation comes from the fact that you think he’s a selfish jerk, you shouldn’t do anything. Just shut up and mind your own business.

The same rule would apply to bigger, tougher issues — such as when the spec sheet tells you to put less of a key ingredient into your product than you know is indicated on the label. Again, if you are fired up because you are worried about your customers, do something, even if it means you might get fired for it. But if you want to blow the whistle simply because you don’t like your boss or you think capitalism is evil, you are being a vindictive jerk yourself.

Be good and compassionate. That’s all you need to do.