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Fear of firing - a problem of ethics

    In the current down time, where jobs are more difficult to find and people stay unemployed longer, fear of firing is becoming more ubiquitous.

    In the past, it was classic advice that if an individual found the ethics of an employer to be out of congruence with his/her own ethics, then the right thing to do would be to speak up and/or find another job. However, today people who value their personal integrity are questioning whether they dare stand up against corporate integrity issues. They worry that they may become the next "pink slip target" if they do not play the good team player and accept whatever decisions are made by those higher up the food chain. At the same time, the casual "look for another job" option is less useful when jobs are few and far between, and every opening is highly competitive.

    If you have colleagues who have been out of work for months, and there are people who rely on you to put food on the table, it becomes necessary to give very careful thought to the balancing of personal authenticity versus survival. One considers long-term hardship versus being able to stand looking at oneself in the mirror, and for some people that battle can be a very difficult one. Of course, these are decisions that must be made by each person individually, and no outsider can say for sure what is right or wrong for another. Circumstances and personal fears and insecurities are different for each of us.

    There are differences, too, between an organization and organizational behaviors. One organization may choose to flout the law, and to take deliberate action to obscure what it is doing and how successful it is being. The obvious apparent example of this is Enron. On the other hand, there are many more organizations where the overall intention is good, but where individual managers at some level fail in their ethics in one way or another. Perhaps the manager who appears to be doing something unethical is having exactly the same experience. There may be a fear of not meeting targets, and a belief that it is better to fudge the numbers than to risk losing the position, and perhaps the jobs of other people in the department. The fear may be based on organization policies, or it may be based on the individual's own insecurities or other sources of motivation, but either way, it is powerful.

    Although one should not interpret an entire organization in light of one or two individuals, unless you can get a lateral transfer to another department, the overall effect on YOU, the employee, is pretty much the same.

    What does one do if working for such a person or organization? Suffer in silence? Seek to move out from being in that individual's direct line of command? Gather evidence for an eventual whistle-blowing? Hang in there and start job-hunting? Quit on the spot and hope that there will be an appropriate job?

    The first step is to protect yourself. Unfortunately, blame tends to trickle downwards before it heads upwards. Although someone senior to you may make unwise decisions, it is not impossible that you may be left holding the bag if their results come to light. If there are questionable dealings in your organization, and if you feel yourself uncomfortable and yet after careful thought you decide that you cannot right now move elsewhere, it is important to keep notes that clarify whose decision it was to give orders that may later be questioned. It is important to distance yourself from the wrong, for your own protection. Start a paper-trail for your own protection.

    The second reason for a paper-trail is so that you have solid information to use, should you ever decide that things have gone further than you can tolerate, and that you have to become a whistle-blower. You need dates, direct quotes, copies of memos if appropriate. You need to note who else was present (though don't count on them supporting you if you do decide to stick your neck out). Most importantly, these records should NOT be kept in your desk or on your office computer, or anywhere that may be subject to scrutiny by others who are involved with your employer.

    At this point some readers may be expostulating, "But in such a situation a person just needs to get out!"

    Clearly that would be the best option. Some risk is inevitable in any situation, and sometimes the risk of "just getting out" is acceptable. Yet in these days of high medical costs, expensive medical insurance (in some countries) can be a major consideration if one has family to consider. Is it more ethical to stay in a job in an unethical organization, or to risk being unable to get appropriate medical care for one's dependents? Or perhaps risking losing the house, causing the family to move, to change schools during critical times in their lives... Each of us must make these decisions based on circumstances, based on input from family members and other who may be affected. This last is important. Unless no one else would be affected by your decision, it is unlikely that you have to - or should - carry the burden of this decision alone.

    In the meanwhile, I suspect that the majority of people who are involved in unethical behavior rarely see themselves as unethical, but, more often, as doing the best they can in steering between a rock and a hard place. Or, if they do realize that their choices are unethical, I doubt that most of them (obviously there are exceptions) set out to become a person who would make those choices. Just as no one starts out with the intention of becoming addicted to a substance, very few people start out with the intention of becoming the "bad guy." It is another of those slippery slopes.

    The art of making ethical choices is a bit like a muscle. It needs to be used regularly, in small things, so that it can develop and be available when the more important, and risky, situations develop. There is an anti-illegal-drug advertisement currently running on American television in which a conversation ends with "So you're saying it's all right to support terrorism just a little bit?" The other person responds, startled, "Did I say that?" And yes, in so many words, he had said that. Such a person has started down the slippery slope of "It's only a little thing, it's not as if it is something important."

    Is it okay to take a piece of candy from someone's desk when they are not there? To make a few personal copies on the office copier? To take home a few pens for the kids to use? To spend an hour of paid time surfing the internet for your own use?

    It is not that the answer to all those questions is automatically "no." Perhaps you and the owner of the candy have an ongoing understanding. Perhaps "a few" personal copies is part of an understanding that you and your employer have... or perhaps not. But what is the lesson your kids would learn if they know that you bring pens home for them? Is that a lesson you intend them to learn? Do you choose to start them on the slippery slope also? My measure of most ethical questions is to ask whether you would be willing to have the whole world know that you have done whatever it is. Would you be willing to see an account of your behavior in the local newspaper? On the internet? Read by your children or your grandchildren? If you can honestly say yes to those four questions, then it is probably ethical. If you know in your heart that it is something you would want to cover up, that you might be inclined to rationalize or to lie about, then it is probably not ethical.

    Where you go from there is your own choice. You are the one who has to face yourself in the mirror every day.

    Someone once wrote that his goal was to be the person that his dog believes he is. I like that. I would suggest that a similar goal is to be the person that one would want one's grandchildren to believe one was.

    That's a guide that can't take us far wrong.



    QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by John G. Miller. "Miller believes that one of the hallmarks of today's business culture is a lack of personal accountability; he prescribes the cure in this series of short stories and personal observations drawn from his years of experience running his organizational development firm. His main point is that positive change begins with individuals changing themselves: 'Instead of asking, 'When will others walk their talk?' let's walk our talk first.' The result is choppy (39 chapters in 115 pages), and at times Miller's advice boils down to truism and clich*. Nevertheless, managers whose workplaces demand remedial, straightforward advice should find a useful tool here."


    The Greatest Miracle in the World by Og Mandino. Regular readers know that when I enclose a book review in quotation marks it means that I have not written it myself, but that I recommend the book. When a review is no in quotation marks, I have written it myself, and where The Greatest Miracle in the World is concerned, I have no hesitation in writing my own review, and was delighted to find that it popped up when I did a search on "ethics" at Amazon.com. This is an old favorite, a book I have bought by the dozen as give-aways, because I believe it is so valuable. While it is most beneficial for those who lack self-esteem, and it provides no pat answers, it is a life-changing book. Not a long or difficult read, in fact a very absorbing story, this has a permanent place on the list of recommended books that I maintain at my website.


    The Oz Principle Getting Results Through Individual & Organizational Accountability by Roger Connors, Tom Smith, Craig R. Hickman, Thomas Smith. "The 'Land of Oz' has come to stand as a symbol for things not being as they seem. The three authors here, though, go to the basic theme of L. Frank Baum's classic: the trip to see the wizard is a journey of self-awareness and discovery, wherein the characters learn that only they themselves possess the power to fully realize or change their lives. The authors extend the metaphor of Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion by describing the heart, courage, and wisdom needed to acknowledge, accept, and deal with circumstances and events as they are. The result is a willingness to accept responsibility, which leads to individual (and organizational) accountability."


    � 2003 by Diana Robinson, Ph.D.
    Choices Success Strategies Coaching
    Work in Progress may be reproduced in its entirety only, including this copyright line. Disclaimer -The contents herein are solely the opinions of Work in Progress owner, and should not be considered as a form of therapy nor advice. There is no guarantee of validity or accuracy. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, services of a competent professional should be sought. TO SUBSCRIBE to Work in Progress send a blank e-mail to workinprogress-On@lists.webvalence.com. To offer feedback e-mail Diana.