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How easy is it to do the right thing?


I recently read an article with a headline stating that ethical behaviour is easy. While I understand where the writer was coming from, I would respectfully challenge anyone who simply asserted that doing the right thing is easy. Here, I am seeking to present an honest assessment of how easy it is to do the right thing so that we can be more alert to the pitfalls. This is important because ethical behaviour is the strongest safeguard against loss of reputation and the unnecessary cost of having to put things right. Here, I break down the challenge of ‘doing the right thing’ into two parts.


Recognising when ethical behaviour is under threat

I hope (and believe) that most people take pride in their moral outlook, and acting without integrity would not sit well with them. In this article, I am not talking about those who are willing to act unethically (or even illegally) for their own personal gain while fully aware of what they are doing. To a great extent, we must rely on others to call out such misbehaviour, and I would argue that it is usually in the public interest for them to do so.


As for the rest of us, recognising when our ethical behaviour is under threat is (potentially) easy, provided we are willing to recognise when we start to feel uncomfortable about a situation, and take the time to explore why. For example, I might have a client whom I regard as likeable and charming, even though they occasionally try to sneak private expenses through their accounts and have a tendency to ‘lose’ sales invoices occasionally. Some might even refer to such a client as a ‘lovable rogue’ who ‘sails close to the wind’. In such a case, perhaps a feeling of discomfort would arise only when I realise that attempts to conceal private expenses have become more frequent and more audacious. Correcting those misclassified payments that I happen to identify is one thing; addressing the underlying threat to my integrity – that the longer the dishonesty continues unchallenged, the more I might feel pressurised to simply accept it – is a different matter.


First, it requires an honest recognition and appraisal of the threat: if I ignore that feeling of discomfort, it is likely that the client will continue to attempt to defraud the taxman and, inevitably, some of those attempts will succeed as my task of spotting them becomes more and more difficult. If I do nothing, that may reasonably be regarded as a decision I have made in my own interests, due to the close relationship I have with this client. So, while I have no control over my feelings of uneasiness, acknowledging those feelings and taking the time to consider how best to respond is a choice, and the first step to addressing an ethical problem. It might be said that this aspect of our response is relatively easy.


So what’s the difficult bit?

The second part of recognising and understanding an ethical dilemma, and so being able to address it appropriately, requires an honest analysis of what is really going on. I’ve touched on that in the above example. But often the difficulty lies in the conflict between what we know we should do and what we want to do. (Freud named these aspects of ourselves and found meaning in the conflict. But let’s keep this article to what we intuitively know to be true.)


Unfortunately, we often tend to underestimate the strength of the drive from what we want to do. In fact, we may not realise at all that our own interests are playing a part in our ethical decision-making. Our thinking may not recognise the unconscious bias towards the action that results in being able to charge higher fees, taking on a new client, or simply taking the easy option. (The last of these is often fuelled by the lack of time we feel we have – time to pause and make good decisions.)


Suppose we recognise the threat to ethical behaviour and we take the time to recognise our bias towards a preferred outcome by bringing that bias into our consciousness. The next problem we face is what psychologists would term a defence mechanism – a defence against having to acknowledge that we were wrong. In the case of our example client, perhaps we were wrong when our instinct was to ‘turn a blind eye’; or perhaps we were wrong when I took on that client (described earlier as a ‘lovable rogue’). Surely, I couldn’t have been mistaken … could I?


Commonly, the mechanism we use to protect ourselves from acknowledging that we have made a mistake is that of rationalisation. Human nature often encourages us to rationalise our way through a situation to arrive at the answer we wanted all along. In the case of our example client, you might tell yourself:

  • ‘I’m not paid to audit the client’s records, and it would be wrong for me to look too closely.’

  • ‘I’m sure other clients are doing something similar. They’re just better at it. Surely, it would be wrong of me to stop a client from doing what everyone else is doing.’

  • ‘I have no evidence that the client is accepting cash and destroying sales invoices. I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for why he always pays in cash when he takes me out to lunch.’

It is not difficult to see the flaws in these statements … unless you want to believe them.


Conclusion

Once you recognise that you are facing an ethical dilemma, it is more likely to be managed effectively when you have colleagues around you to hear your reasoning and challenge it if necessary. If not, then ask yourself who best to consult (while ensuring due regard for confidentiality of course). Our self-interest in a situation may stand in the way of asking ourselves why we feel uneasy about a situation. But having answered that question, we must then recognise that the solution that we propose for ourselves may not have been reached without bias. Above all, we must recognise when we are rationalising away ethical considerations … because we fear the consequences of facing them.

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