•  February 5, 2019

    The Meaning of Ethics – Some Personal Reflections

    This article was originally published by Applied Geographics Inc. (AppGeo), a company acquired by The Sanborn Map Company Inc in September 2022.

    By Bill Johnson, carpe geo evangelist

    There are plenty of good definitions for the term ethics, and in the business world these also have legal meanings, as the scope of ethics can cross over statutory or contractual boundaries. It can be fairly simple to recognize egregious ethical lapses that involve criminal behavior, but there are many others that may appear to occupy a gray area. The best organizations model strong ethical postures from the very top and instill a code of honor that boils down to something very simple: do the right thing. This can have a very powerful effect on the culture of the organization and subconsciously influence the daily choices and behaviors of everyone. My personal definition of ethics is that it means doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching.

    Avoiding a corrosive environment

    I’ve seen some poorly-handled ethical situations in my career, and experienced first-hand the corrosive nature of those actions on the culture of the organization. One of these, many years ago, involved the head of the state agency where I was working at the time. His deputy, a close colleague of his who he brought along when he was first appointed, was caught directing agency resources for personal use and was exposed in the newspapers. At our next weekly staff meeting with the agency head, he opened the meeting by saying (I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t recall his exact words, but this is close): “You’ve all seen the newspapers and I want you to know that X is a good man. I’ve known him for a long time and I think it’s terrible that he is being treated this way. Ignore it and keep doing your job. This will blow over.” He then resumed the normal meeting agenda.

    I was stunned and could sense the same feeling from others around the conference table. Here was an obvious “teachable moment” that the agency head could have used to say something about how, as public servants, we needed to maintain an unbending ethic posture at all times so that the people we served knew that we were acting responsibly and on their behalf, and not for personal gain. A message like that would have reassured us all that were were being led by someone with high ethics and would have helped us all deal with the situation at hand with a clear sense that our agency was doing the right thing. Instead, we left the room feeling let down and pondering how much worse things could possibly get. Over the following weeks, the mood around the agency grew dark and I became aware of colleagues quietly seeking opportunities to leave. I don’t think anyone felt good about the work environment.

    I could cite further examples, but there is no need. The outcome was the same each time, a feeling of disgust, of defeat, of wanting to disassociate myself from the poor choices others had made. In contrast, I feel a silent surge of pride when I observe strong ethical behaviors occurring, especially if the situation could have just as easily been overlooked. I will give you one example, involving one of my daughters.

    Making Strong ethical choices

    She was working as an intern and arrived at work extra early one morning to help prep for an important event, to find her supervisor with an open bottle of beer on his desk. He tried to explain it away, as it was a clear violation of the no-alcohol-in-the-workplace rule at the organization. My daughter surmised (correctly, as it turned out) that other issues were involved. She faced a quandry; should she report her supervisor, who would clearly be displeased and might try to characterize her as a liar (or worse), or just brush the incident aside and carry on, business as usual? She had very little standing as an intern and knew that her supervisor could seek her termination. Thankfully, she decided to do the right thing, and reported the incident. She was surprised later to learn that her courage in making that decision was recognized by others and she received a personal word of thanks from the head of the organization. I can also tell you that, as a parent, I was very proud that she made the right decision, against the odds.

    Company culture and core principles

    I’m pleased to be part of a company that treats ethics as one of its core principles. It means I have the confidence of knowing that I work with colleagues who share these values. When the inevitable situations occur that require us to make difficult ethical choices, I trust my AppGeo colleagues to heed the company culture, and do the right thing.

    [Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash]

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