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It is often far harder to recover from an ethics mistake than an ordinary mistake. While an ordinary mistake may reveal a lack of knowledge or attention, an ethical mistake colours perception of everything a person does. When caught in an ethical mistake, admitting to it often does not settle the matter. Doubt remains about the character of the person who made the mistake.
Suppose you steal a sales lead from a co-worker by intercepting a customer phone call intended for the co-worker – "She's not available but, no worries, I can help you with that…" You take over the call, steal the customer and get paid an incentive for doing so. And then you are caught. Not only will your co-worker never trust you again; she will put out the word that you prey on your colleagues' business. You made a fatal ethics mistake.
Or suppose you are working on a new drug being tested in clinical trials. The company is gambling a lot on this drug and you are proud of your role in its development. After the closing date for all trials to be reported, a late report arrives indicating problems with the drug. It is the only negative report and you are entitled to ignore it because it is late. You bury the late study. But when the drug is released, there are serious side effects, just as predicted by the late study. You made a fatal ethics mistake.
Hindsight is 20/20 and you may conclude that you would never make these mistakes. And yet in my daily work as an ethics consultant, I see many fatal ethics mistakes made by ordinary people. While they almost always regret these mistakes, they have often injured their careers irreparably. In ethics, it is often one strike and you are out.
Fatal ethics mistakes are almost entirely avoidable if you take certain precautions when facing difficult decisions. Here are some useful tips from my experience.
Don't justify what you do by what others would do in the same situation.
I am sure the sales person who stole the lead justified his action by thinking that his colleague would do the same thing given the chance – and that may be true. But when you are caught doing something unethical, it quickly becomes clear that what others would do is no excuse. You own your own actions.
Act on the principle that nothing you do is private.
Most people who make fatal ethics mistakes gamble that their action will never be discovered. They are trying to fly under the radar. But we live in a world in which everything we do is tracked, recorded and potentially accessible. Even if it was once reasonable to assume you might fly under the radar, there is no space under the radar today.
Respect your innate sense of right and wrong.
When we do something wrong, we often ignore an uneasiness about the action that we may not be able to explain. In a world of ethical relativism, it is unfashionable to claim to have an inner sense of right and wrong. And yet we do. In almost every fatal ethics mistake I have observed, the individual making the mistake sensed that the action was wrong beforehand.
Don't use pressure to justify an unethical action.
Many fatal ethics mistakes are made under pressure to just make some decision – any decision. Rather than think things through, you take the path closest at hand even if it is ethically questionable. The rationalization is that anyone under the same pressure might make the same choice. Be on guard when you feel pressure to just make a decision. Hindsight will judge the action without considering the pressure.
If you are not sure of an action, try explaining it to someone whose judgment you trust.
This is not because you will benefit from what the other person has to say – although you probably will. But you will benefit primarily from your own attempt to explain the action. When you cannot give an explanation you consider plausible, you are risking a fatal ethics mistake.
Most fatal ethical mistakes happen because a person's own ethical sense is stifled by circumstance, psychology, or pressure. It is easy to see fatal ethics mistakes in hindsight just because these complicating factors are not present when you judge an action in the past.
The simple steps outlined here are intended to help you turn hindsight into foresight. They are designed to bring your own ethics sense to the surface. In ethics, a lot of what we learn is what we already knew.
Mark Pastin is an ethics consultant and the chief executive officer of the Council of Ethical Organizations, an Alexandria, Va.,-based non-profit organization that promotes ethics in business and government. He's also the author of Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action.