Ethics: Does being Ethical Put You at a Disadvantage?


by Cheryl Wilson and Paul Lohnes

This question would seem to have a logical answer, but follow me on this road of discovery.

Article after article in the recent literature lists the characteristics of an ethical person as being:

  • Honest:  the characteristic of telling the truth regardless of personal disadvantage
  • Responsible:  the characteristic of completing assigned tasks within given constraints and limitations
  • Reliable:  the characteristic of being both consistent and complete with respect to assigned tasks
  • Goal-Oriented:  the characteristic of mental and professional intensity and drive towards work horizons
  • Job-Focused:  the characteristic of maintaining single-mindedness towards contracted assignments

You would think, any employer would want an employee to have these ethical characteristics, right? Well, you would be somewhat surprised that this is not always the case. A way to discover your own ethical high water mark is to consider these following scenarios.

What would you do in a situation where:

Scenario One: You are on a government contract, and you are told by your employer you will get paid for 40 hours a week, but are expected to work 45 hours a week while logging 45 hours on your timesheet with no additional compensation.  You find out your employer is submitting your 45 hours to the government client and allocating the 5 hours to the organization?

Scenario Two: You have worked well over your allotted hours for the contract due to heavy requirements.  You are told to only work 5 hours this week, log 5 hours this week, but to tell the customer you are working 40 hours a week.  The employer tells you it is ok as it is a Fixed Firm Price Contract?

Scenario Three:  You are told to charge 40 hours a week on a government contract, no matter how many hours you work.  You are told it is a Firm Fix Price Contract and it will all come out in the wash?

The question to ask after reading the three scenarios is “whose ethics are they?”   Being ethical does put you at a disadvantage simply since those with more ethical constraints live by more intense and limiting conditions.  Many times you are put in a situation to either turn your head to scenarios that you know is just not right, or to consider the “grey areas” such the type of contract and pricing that really do not matter according to others.

Remember, ethics are not a single frame of mind nor a single set of principles. There are levels of ethics that many practice, and they can be thought of in the following analogy:

  • Clothing level ethics: these are ethics that are simply superficial and can be changed like a suit or dress given the circumstances or most likely the probably outcomes.
  • Skin level ethics: these are ethics that are more ingrained like the summer tan or skin tone one has. While they are more difficult to ignore or change, over time, they can be made to turn or be changed with a bit of effort. These ethics derive from our surroundings, feelings of belonging to a group, or our need to be accepted.
  • Bone level ethics: these are ethics or components of one’s character; I say that these type of ethics are those that exist deep within your identity and DNA as a person. They are almost impossible to ignore or change since they are born of one’s upbringing or deep experiences.

The level of ethics will determine how one reacts in a given situation and which level of ethics is used to deal with the circumstances in which one find themselves. Our research and those of others (Maslow, Jung, and Freud) has shown that the hardest level of ethics to disregard or ignore are those of the bone level. They are truly who we are a person, and can no more be rejected as influencers of our behavior than we could divulge ourselves of the impact that DNA has on our lives and physicality. However, they can be temporarily masked by the other two levels given enough motivation or application of force by those around us. In the end, they will return, and if we act tangential to them, we experience the “pangs of conscious,” or “internal conflict of self-interest.

So the real question comes down to: under what conditions do you apply your clothes, skin, or bone level ethics in the above scenarios? If you do not think about these questions then you are more likely to allow your emotions or situational ethics (a very different type of ethics) to temporarily take over with outcomes that may have far reaching and maybe detrimental impact to your career or professional progress.

Back to the original question: does being ethical place you at a disadvantage? The answer while not black or white does depend the specifics of the circumstances surrounding the effect your ethics will have on your decisions since ethics are really a type of heuristic or shortcut that we use to assist us with making decisions in situations where pure logic or quantitative analysis are either not appropriate or have little value. Regardless of your beliefs about the life-force or life spark of a human, not every situation can be reduce to a set of statistical equations. We many times have to make decisions based on how we see ourselves as a person and the values we hold internally. Those that can divulge themselves of the internal characteristics that every human somehow is endowed with based on their membership in the human race (compassion, kindness, consideration, sympathy, etc.) are those that can change their “ethics” like most of us change our clothes.

You need to consider whether your business and professional ethics are put-on, part-of, or buried deep within you as a person. The bottom line is that the easier it is to “change your ethics,” the less of a disadvantage you will be in which on the surface may appear to be of value; however, the more you will find your life becoming shallow and pointless as you disregard your true character. A person with deep seated ethics, unfortunately regardless of the direction or morality of such ethics, will find their lives less confusing or chaotic as our ethics act as pre-defined behavioral patterns we use to help us make decisions in both our professional and personal lives.

Ethics are best understood before there comes the need to apply their behavioral impacts. Being placed in a situation where one has to make a snap decision involving the application of their ethics can be both stressful and unenjoyable unless you know what and where your boundaries lie, and what it takes to “push them over.” Thus being ethical make put one at a temporary disadvantage, but in the long run the “man in the mirror” has to live with the man in the suit.


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