Success vs Ethics, part 2

Cathy Arnst

The other day I posted an entry to this blog, Goal: Successful Kids or Ethical Kids, about the larger lessons to be learned from the plagiarism scandal surrounding 19-year old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel was so similar to one she had read several times in high school that her publishers were forced to pull it from the market. That posting led me to a March 21 column on the BusinessWeek site, Working Advice by Liz Ryan, CEO of an online networking site for professional women, WorldWIT. It is well worth checking out both. Liz's March 21 column, titled Taking A Stand On Ethics, is about what she believes are the biggest problems facing white collar professionals these days:

It's not how to get promoted, how to foil the backstabber in the next cube, and how to neutralize the idea-stealing clown one department away. These are tactical issues. The big one, the issue that vexes corporate people in every industry and function, is this: How do I succeed at my job without turning into that spineless character -- a pod person?

Driving home from the office, or sitting in the airport waiting for the red-eye, we wonder: Is this me? Are these meetings I'm holding, these memos I'm writing, are they the things I'm supposed to be doing? Corporate roles can introduce mind-numbing ethical issues. That layoff last month -- did we handle that right? How do I feel about the big bonus I got, in light of the fact that we just outsourced customer support and eliminated 32 jobs in New York? And so on. It's not easy.

I have to admit, her column brought me up short. The big issue it raises for parents is how our own behavior at work influences our children, and their views on work, success and ethics. If we want to raise ethical children, we have to get our own houses in order. We can't expect our children to stay true to their beliefs and sense of honor if we alter our own character to fit unethical or questionable workplace practices. To take an extreme bad example, what lessons did the Ken Skillings and Bernard Ebbers of the world teach their children? And why did Viswanathan--who has said she wants a career in finance--think it was OK somehow to cut corners to get ahead? I have a feeling she is not the only high-achieving teenager to absorb that lesson.

Read Liz's column. Also, visit the WorldWIT and read some of the many interesting postings there. And let us know what you think--can we be pod people at the office and good role models at home? It might be one of the toughest issues we face as working parents. Or nonworking parents.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.