Telling the Truth: 3 Steps for Ethical Decision Making

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is from Robert Rosell, President of Quality Media Resources, Inc. (QMR). He has written and produced over 50 award-winning educational and training programs aimed at helping organizations develop respectful workplace relationships.

A few years ago, Radio Shack CEO David Edmondson resigned after it was revealed the degrees he claimed on his resume were fakes. Similarly, Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson was fired after four months on the job for lying about his academic credentials.

Workplace relationships are no different from any others. They are based on trust, and you can’t trust someone who lies to you. This is of particular concern when the people who are lying are playing key leadership roles in our organizations.

Most people throughout an organization are carefully screened before they are hired. Their resumes are checked and their backgrounds scrutinized. This isn’t always the case at the top and the results can be embarrassing—or worse. Holding a senior position is no assurance a person’s values are consistent with those an organization wants to present to the world.

It’s easy to fall back on the old “everyone does it” defense. This argument maintains that padding your resume isn’t lying; it’s just trying to open a few doors so you can show people what you can really do. It’s very tempting to succumb to this logic. Even so, this behavior is wrong and potentially very damaging to your career and your organization. 

The study of ethics is complex. Philosophers spend their lives contemplating and debating approaches to ethical dilemmas. Making good ethical decisions at work, on the other hand, shouldn’t require a PhD.

In QMR’s course “3 Steps to Ethical Decisions”, we suggest organizational leaders ask themselves 3 simple questions when facing a difficult ethical situation.

  • Is it legal?
  • What is the likely impact once the decision becomes widely known?
  • Does it feel like the right thing to do?

Is it legal is a baseline question. This is the compliance level stuff, well below true ethics. You don’t break the law, period, ever. There is one exception to this rule, and that’s when the law itself is immoral and you are willing to take the consequences of challenging it. Laws enforcing slavery in the U.S. or apartheid in South Africa would be historical examples.

The likely impact can be thought of as the ripple effect. Here you’re examining the impact your decision will have on a broad range of stakeholders once that decision becomes widely known. This last bit is critical to ethical decision making. We are much more likely to compromise our principles if we feel we are doing so in private.

Let’s look at the decision to pad your resume. If you consider the impact that decision will have on your family, your reputation, your career, your colleagues, and your employer once it becomes widely known, it is very likely you would stick with the truth. Assuming your decision will remain a secret is a sure path to tactical shortcuts and lapses of judgment. If you always assume your important decision will become widely known at some point, your internal ethical compass is more likely to point you in the right direction.

Finally there’s the gut check – does it feel like the right thing to do. This is where you hear that little voice in your head that struggles to keep you true to your core values. For many of us this is the hardest step in the process. It requires a level of self-awareness and introspection, a consciousness of who we really are and what’s important to us. Making a decision that fails the gut check will likely lead to compromising our most fundamental principles.

If corporate executives, politicians and other leaders would just ask themselves these simple questions, they would save themselves, and their organizations, significant embarrassment—and worse. People at all levels in an organization can fall victim to choosing short-term expedience at the expense of doing what is in their long-term interests. Lying to colleagues, regulators, customers or the public never passes these three simple tests. This is as true for the CEO as it is for the entry-level employee.