One of our young professionals, while working in Mexico, offered a bribe to a local official. When we questioned him about it, it was clear that he didn't feel he had done anything unethical. He said, "I knew it was bad to take a bribe, but surely it's not such a big deal to give a bribe. I mean, I didn't get anything out of it."
Since he didn't feel guilty, I decided I would. I realized that putting pressure on a young professional to deliver without telling him what ethical standards we expect him to adhere to was contributing to his bad behavior. He'd probably seen J.R. do it on Dallas and it looked pretty clever.
At first, we went for the conventional solution; we developed an ethics manual and accompanying videotape for review by each new employee. Naturally the employees resented it and they expressed that resentment by saying that if we didn't think they were ethical why did we hire them in the first place.
It was then that I made my first of two discoveries about ethical standards; they shouldn't be codified to tell employees what they are not permitted to do but rather, what they may do; what they are encouraged to do. Our company was going to tell them it was OK to be ethical. Sound ridiculous? Consider how regularly your employees are bombarded with negative images of businessmen cheating and being clever at other people's expense. Unless they had a good roll model or large doses of Sunday school, the inexperienced don't know what to do when the pressure is on - especially in an alien culture.
The new standards helped employees who had never thought much about ethics. They might not agree but they at least knew the rules. Oddly enough, for those who had seen a lot of Sunday school, our new standards didn't help at all. This was my second discovery about the shortcomings of conventional legal-based proclamations on ethics. Those who saw themselves as having a good religious upbringing still needed to understand how they could pray each night to be a good Christian and then charge out each morning to beat the hell out of the competition?
Ethical Ambition was written to demonstrate the compatibility of spirtual values with business success and to illustrate that ethics is a function of a higher authority than legal expediency.
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