Workplace Ethics: The High Cost of Compromise

This year's college graduates enter a job market nearly as challenging as the one confronted by last June's class, and scarce jobs make ethical decisions even tougher. How will the latest crop of corporate recruits respond when the boss suggests that they manipulate sales numbers, when they encounter a racially biased work environment, or when they are instructed to lie to cover up a mistake?

New employees inevitably face ethical challenges. In fact, I find most graduates are quick to share stories about the first time they were asked to do something unethical—even in the most ethical companies. The boss may ask them to fudge a number on a report, or check a box and say a test was done when it was not. The new sales employee may be told we "always" exaggerate the capabilities of our product, or that it is normal to disguise alcoholic drinks and personal entertainment on expense reports so the company pays for them.

Because it has been difficult this year to land any job, new graduates will be less likely to resist, less likely to put their new position at risk in order to do the right thing. And that threatens to undermine the ethical character of this year's graduates at the outset of their careers.

When Behavior is Bullying

One ethical dilemma faced by virtually every employee in his or her first months on the job is how to react to the workplace bully or the "belittling boss." There are people in even the best organizations that put down or pick on others. The bully's target may be the woman in a male-dominated team; the department's first African American; the Hispanic singled out as an "illegal." Some bullying bosses are equal-opportunity harassers. We try to help new employees stand up to such bullying behavior and "stand with" the person being harassed or bullied. But new employees fearful for their jobs will more often stay silent and go along with the jokes at the expense of others. What long-term impact does this have on the recruit's willingness to tolerate intolerance?

In college ethics courses, we try to prepare our graduates for these unavoidable "moments of truth" by reminding them that it takes courage to act ethically. Those of us with experience in business tell students they might receive kudos and a pat on the back for behaving ethically, but acting ethically can also lead to ostracism or even getting fired for not being a team player. To resist "going along" in a time of recession takes an extra dose of courage. We hope this year's graduates get the message that compromising values now only makes it easier to compromise them later. And long term, a weak ethical character may be the greatest career risk of all.

Ethical dilemmas can also be more personal. Do I want to be a hedge fund mogul, a benevolent community banker, an inner-city teacher, a nurse, a soldier defending my country? Do I want to make a lot of money, or am I satisfied with a little? Is helping people an essential part of my life's work? In a recession, the desperate state of many service organizations or a graduate's need to pay back loans may close off some or all of his or her true vocational choices. Graduates are glad to get any job, and there is a real danger they may give up hope of ever finding work they find meaningful.

Ethical Dilemmas Are Unavoidable

Similarly, how do they balance work with life outside of work? Will they scrimp on family obligations while pursuing job success? Will they find any time at all for service in their work lives? Some graduates will conclude they have to work all the time to be sure they keep their jobs. In many organizations, we find that bosses load work on new employees until they object. In a recession, fewer new graduates will push back. Family life, artistic expression, and service may be squeezed out of their lives now—and long after the recession ends.

Graduates, in a recessionary economy or not, must understand that ethical dilemmas and choices are an unavoidable part of one's work life. We urge students to investigate the culture of the company and the specific work group they may join. Their chances of living a life of integrity are greater in a business that genuinely strives to act ethically. But even in those that have good corporate cultures, ethical tests are rampant, particularly for the newly hired graduate.

The bullying boss or the request to fudge a test should lead the recruit to seek a better understanding of what is being asked and other opinions on whether this is indeed "how we do things around here." Maybe this is just how this rogue employee or manager does it. If the new employee is not convinced the request is reasonable and ethical, he or she needs to raise the issue with someone else until the new employee becomes convinced it is legitimate, provokes the companty to intervene, or decides he joined a company with a weak ethical culture.

Recession or not, the unavoidable ethical dilemmas in any business career give our graduates ample and early opportunities to decide whether they will lead business careers of expediency or integrity. We hope we can convince them they serve the true interests of their companies, of society, and of themselves by confronting these ethical dilemmas directly and with exceptional courage.

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