Good public relations is one thing, but lying is another thing entirely.  Protecting proprietary information, maintaining confidentialities, and adhering to legal requirements are all acceptable, expected, noble behaviors, but lying is not.  And just because something is true does not mean you have an obligation to divulge it to anyone who asks.  Then again, all this seems to depend on the context.  For good or for bad, group ethical dynamics sometimes overwhelm individual ethical dynamics and vice versa.

Christopher Bonanos gathers some of the latest research about how and why people compromise ethics and integrity at work (“The Lies We Tell at Work: Why Dishonesty Thrives at the Office” Bloomberg Businessweek 2/4/13–2/10/13, pp. 71–73).  Bonanos references Robert Feldman’s work on the proverbial question of determining whether the problem is with the individual or with the group:

“Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Liar in Your Life, says that the greater the deception, the more workplace culture is likely a factor.  There’s the ‘bad apple’ theory:  A few crooks in an organization conduct themselves unethically, but everyone else (especially subordinates) is duped into believing that somehow what they’re seeing is OK.  And then, Feldman says, there’s the ‘bad barrel’ theory: the Enron model, in which a poisoned environment, from the top down, sets up the equivalent of social norms in which cheating and lying are an accepted part of daily life.  After hearing enough times about officemates expensing meals that aren’t work-related, you might start doing it, too. . . . Distrust begets distrust.” (pp. 72–73)

In some cases, just one individual, perhaps a key leader begins to compromise ethics and integrity.  These behaviors become known, modeled, and even endorsed.  It is okay to lie.  In time, the entire organization adopts a culture of distrust.  Ethics noncompliance becomes the norm.  Personal and professional integrity vanish.  We are too familiar with the numerous times these ethical disasters have unfolded in our 24/7 news cycle.

Whether it is the “bad apple” or the “bad barrel,” both scenarios are of course wrong.  From an ethical standpoint, the higher your leadership level in the organization, the more accountable you are to correct the unethical behaviors.  Nevertheless, from a personal and professional integrity level, you remain accountable too, regardless of your leadership level.  If ethics and integrity have validity, then they do not go on vacation nor do they allow exceptions because of your title.

If it is a “bad apple” and you are it, then you have much work to do.  Nevertheless, the payoff is you will be able to sleep much better.  Your peace of mind and sense of wellness will improve dramatically.  Otherwise, you become like Richard Gere in the movie, “Arbitrage” (2012).  (Spoiler alert!)  Throughout the entire movie, you are waiting for Gere to redeem himself in the wake of a terrible financial smokescreen he created.  Then, at the very end of the movie, you come to the horrific realization that Gere has no intention to come clean.  He does not care.  He would rather live the rest of his life as a fraud even when the people closest to him see right through him.  Is that who you want to be?  I trust not.

If it is a “bad barrel” scenario, then you still have much work to do.  The payoff there is you have the opportunity to be the ethics champion.  If you are successful, not only will you benefit, but your entire organization will benefit.  No doubt, many tough decisions will await you (Have I contributed to this?  Do I stay or do I go?  Is this fixable?).

It will not be easy.  But ethics and integrity by definition never guarantee “easy.”  They guarantee doing what is right regardless of the cost.  And God knows we need more people like that in today’s business world.

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About James Meadows

Currently I serve as a training team manager for Tyco Integrated Security at a customer-care center in Kansas City. Additionally, I am a business consultant, a freelance corporate writer, an Assembly of God ordained minister, a Civil Air Patrol chaplain, and a blogger. I believe we are living in the most fascinating times of human history. To maximize the opportunities these times present, I have a passionate interest in leadership development and organizational success, both of which I view as inextricably linked.

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