One of the books I like to assign when students get caught cheating is Kenneth Blanchard and Norman Peale’s The Power of Ethical Management. It is succinct and practical. Its opening section begins with an anecdote by one of the authors in which he is faced with an ethical dilemma and seeks out advice from a trusted friend. The friend tells him that her company, recently rocked by an ethical controversy, has since adopted an “ethics check” process that begins by asking three essential questions:
- Is it legal?
- Is it balanced?
- How will it make me feel about myself?
Is it legal?
For Blanchard and Peale, this question is more complicated than it first appears. Yes, they clearly mean to suggest weighing the action against local/ state/ federal laws. However, they also mean that one should consider if the proposed action goes against company policy, institutional norms, and industry standards.
Before you sigh at the prospect of rifling through thousands of pages of company policy or industry standards, consider the practical way Blanchard and Peale place this in perspective:
His friend asks him to consider the big picture. “Our company expects,” she explains, “that no employee will undertake any activity while on company premises, or while engaging in company business, that is (or gives the appearance of being) improper, illegal, or immoral, or that could in any way harm or embarrass our company…”.
Is it balanced?
The second question is, at first, a bit of a head-scratcher. The friend explains that her company asks, when considering an ethically challenging decision, if the action “will be fair or will it heavily favor one party over another in the short or in the long term?” This is born out of a belief, she continues, that “lopsided, win-lose decisions invariably end up as lose-lose situations.”
In other words, lop-sided windfalls have a way of catching up to a business and are generally considered unhealthy for the industry. “There’s no peace of mind,” she says, “in being Number One in a troubled industry.”
Many might find this viewpoint surprising given sensationalist headlines in the media and notoriously famous films about the cut-throat nature of American business. The logic, though, is worth pausing over: if you gain an unfair advantage over a competitor that results in a lopsided deal, then what does that encourage them to do in return?
How will it make me feel about myself?
The last question anchors the potential action to an individual’s sense of morality. Is there a decision you can’t live with? The friend asks these important questions:
- How would I feel if what I’m considering doing was published in the newspaper?
- Would I like my family to know?
If the answer to those questions doesn’t sit well with you, regardless of if it passes the other two questions, then perhaps you shouldn’t do it. After all, we have to live with ourselves.
So, as our campus prepares for another exciting and challenging fall semester, keep this practical “ethics check” in the back of your mind and use it to make better decisions.