AN ETHICAL TRIP WIRE

Throughout human history, mankind has proven quite capable of ethical breaches that inflict harm on one another.  Examples of everything from minor offenses to serious ethical lapses easily come to mind.

Professional men and women with influence, power and authority over others, have their own profession-defined capacity for ethical breaches that often harm others.  Moreover, the temptation to risk inflicting this harm is often very powerful and compelling:  the physician who falsifies a report to cover up a serious and career threatening mistake; the engineer who fails to report a potentially critical design flaw he or she discovers in a finished product for which they were responsible; the police officer who plants evidence to nail a potentially innocent suspect they absolutely believe is guilty; or the lawyer who withholds a piece of vital evidence during discovery because of its potentially damaging impact on their case.

Professional managers have their own particular temptations for ethical missteps with potentially harmful consequences for others;  withholding important career-relevant information from a subordinate for selfish reasons, or to avoid a potentially emotional or hostile confrontation;  placing the blame for their own serious mistake on somebody else; or lying to superiors about matters where honesty is professionally or legally required.

While most of us realize that unethical behavior is wrong, we are unfortunately human after all.  Consequently, we have an extraordinary capacity for rationalizing unethical behavior when the circumstances confront us with personal risk of some kind.  Most of us have, at times, considered an example of clearly unethical behavior and thought to ourselves, “certainly I would not have done that”.  But in the precise moment when an ethical  decision must be made, that sort of certainty is often overwhelmed by the pressure of the situation and the power of rationalization kicks in.

This is why I have long been a proponent of establishing a series of ethical trip wires in advance.  Every professional can readily identify a series of situations common to their occupation where hard and difficult ethical choices may arise. Thinking clearly and often in advance about how we should respond, allows us to establish a commitment hopefully sufficient to help us summon the courage to follow through should those situations arise.

Nothing, of course, can guarantee that courage at the moment of ethical choice.  Faced with a decision, for example, that would require us to quit our job or put our future career at risk, we can not know with certainty what we will do until we have done it.  We will likely feel a strong  urge to find some rationalization for self-preservation.

But frequently considering the ethical choices that may confront us, allows us to reaffirm our commitment to ethical behavior, commitments that in turn become a core part of our personal and professional identity.  The more ethical behavior becomes an essential ingredient of how we define ourselves and of how we wish others to see us, the more likely we are to have the courage to make the right ethical choices that may confront us.

In an earlier article in this series entitled “Being Accountable”,  I referenced a “New Yorker” article (5/25/95 pp. 45-53) entitled “The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis”. It chronicles the potentially career-ending response of William LeMessurier, one of America’s leading structural engineers, when he discovered that the supports he designed for the skyscraper-like Citicorp Center in Manhattan, NY were potentially flawed and might not survive the city’s occasional high wind storms.

Now I have no idea whether William LeMessurier spent any time imagining what he would do if ever he confronted a situation like the Citicorp building.  But his story remains inspirational because by blowing the whistle on himself and his firm, he faced potentially ruinous personal and professional consequences.  The cost or repairs would run into the millions and there was no guarantee that the structure would ever fail.  Still he acted because he believed it was the ethically correct thing to do.  His ethical trip wire was triggered.

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