DEAR READERS: Are you tired of seeing corporate executives going to jail? I am. I wanted to explore an approach to ethics at work that actually works. So I talked to Lee Roy Beach, Ph.D., one of the world's top decision researchers, retired MBA professor and author of "Leadership and the Art of Change: A Practical Guide to Organizational Transformation" (Sage, 2005).
Working Wounded: Given all the ethics training, why are there so many scandals?
Lee Beach: The problem with ethics is not that we lack them, it's that we have difficulty recognizing when they're relevant. We're shocked when other people behave badly, but when we behave badly we can rationalize why it was necessary. The ethical lapses I've lived to regret didn't seem to be lapses at the time. It was only afterward that I realized how badly I behaved. I wasn't knowingly unethical; I simply failed to recognize that the situation was ethically dangerous.
WW: Can you give me a definition of ethics?
LB: Pursuit of unwarranted gain.
WW: What can an organization do?
LB: Few of us think of ourselves as unethical and we resent being told that we are -- so there is built-in resistance to training. Begin by changing the focus from the characteristics of employees to the characteristics of dangerous situations. Any particular business's activities give rise to dangerous situations that are more or less unique to that business. The key is to help employees recognize these situations when they arise and to provide guidelines for dealing with them.
WW: How do people get in trouble at work?
LB: Four main ways. Abuse of power (e.g., sexual harassment or bribery), abuse of knowledge (e.g., insider training or misrepresentation of its financial status) or abuse of affiliation or relationships), abuse of access (e.g., misappropriation of company's intellectual property or using friendly politicians to gain unfair advantage over competitors) and abuse of relationships (misuse of company's name to support one's own political or social agenda and colluding to fix prices with a competitor); all in the pursuit of unwarranted gain on one kind or another.
WW: What is the first step an organization should take?
LB: Because people already believe themselves to be ethical, it is best not to even use the word -- use "conduct" instead. Create a Code of Conduct that describes (1) the dangerous situations, (2) what to do or not to do in each situation, and (3) the rewards for doing what you should and the penalties for doing what you shouldn't. Doing this moves the discussion from abstract ethics to concrete behavior and it provides an enforceable company policy with explicit consequences for appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
WW: What is the biggest mistake that an organization makes?
LB: They try to reinvent the wheel. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions has compiled large collection of existing codes available at: http://ethics.iit.edu/codes/index.html. Using these as models can save a lot of time and expense and will focus on what is really important.