A New Ethical Standard

A New Ethical Standard

What distinguishes a career activist from other working men and women? And just as important, how is the way a career activist manages their own work experience in the 21st Century different from the way that employers managed the careers of their employees in the 20th Century?

Over the next four weeks, I’ll answer those questions with a series of posts on the four cultural values of a career activist. These values form the ethos—the culture—of career activism, one that both acknowledges and leverages the realities of the modern American workplace. They are not simply a reassembled set of old values, but rather an entirely new way of looking at the purpose of and possibilities in a person’s work and employment.

The first two of these values – a new strategic imperative and a new definition of loyalty – were covered in my last post. In this post, I’ll explore the second cultural value of career activism – a new ethical standard.

Organizations are inanimate. They are lifeless shells that are unable to do anything on their own. Organizations do not make decisions, and they do not act. And for that reason, they cannot misbehave. Only the people who lead and work for them can, and sometimes, they do.

Unfortunately, our society has developed a conceit which obfuscates that truth. We deny human culpability for mistakes and misdeeds and, instead, assign the blame to the organization where they occurred. A late 2009 news report from The New York Times offers a case in point. It read:

“The whistle-blower, a former Seagate employee named Paul A. Galloway, has provided what is described as ‘an eyewitness account’ accusing Seagate of taking hard-drive technology from Convolve and incorporating it into its own products, according to documents filed recently with a federal court in Manhattan.

The court filings include claims by Mr. Galloway that Seagate, the world’s largest producer of computer hard drives, tampered with evidence tied to Convolve’s nearly 10-year-old patent infringement case against the company.”

The organization, according to this account, was the source of the misbehavior. It and not its employees had broken the law. And, that self-insulating device has become an ethical blind spot in American culture. If the media mention people at all in their reports of unethical, illegal or just plain stupid workplace activity, they usually point their finger at corporate leaders.

Those leaders, of course, are ultimately responsible for all of the actions that occurred on their watch. In most cases, however, they are not the ones who actually performed the deeds. They may have permitted, encouraged or even ordered that something be done, but they are not the ones who did it. They are accountable, but nothing at all would have happened if someone else—an employee—hadn’t agreed to go along.

Holding Themselves to a Higher Standard

Career activists acknowledge the role of people in workplace standards and culture. It is the foundation for their acceptance of a new ethical standard—one that obligates them to distinguish between right and wrong actions in their work. American soldiers are expected to exercise such discretion in the heat of combat—when the calculus determines life or death—so career activists believe it is neither unrealistic nor asking too much to expect working men and women to do the same on-the-job. If the American people can demand that those who defend them do so in accordance with the Geneva Convention and the rules of war, then they should hold themselves to a similarly strict set of rules in their workplace behavior.

That commitment means more than simply adhering to the letter of the law. Certainly, career activists don’t steal from their employers. But equally as important, they don’t stoop to lying or cheating either. They are, for example, the human resource manager who refuses to backdate stock option grants for the executives in her company. They are the commissioned salesperson who will not sell a product he knows is defective. They are the engineer who refuses to approve construction work that is shoddy and dangerous even if it delays the project. And, they are the actuary who will not sign a financial statement they know to be untrue regardless of the pressure they get from their boss.

Career activists do not set themselves up as the ethics police, but they do hold themselves to a high standard of personal conduct. They refuse to stoop to behavior that they know is wrong or to justify it as something they were “forced” to do by their superior. They strive to be the principled citizens of the workplace. Career activists will not work for organizations that condone, encourage or require illegal, unethical or inappropriate behavior. And if, by chance, they find themselves employed by one, they refuse to go along.

This commitment to ethical workplace behavior is best described as “fairfillment.” A career activist works for their individual fulfillment, but believes the accomplishment of that end depends upon their first embracing fairness.

The dictionary defines the word fair as “being consistent with ethics.” Hence, a career activist serves their own best interests by respecting the best interests of everyone else. They will not obey an illegal order from their boss because harming the community or the planet prevents them from being fulfilled. They will not cut corners, shade the truth or hide dangerous situations because victimizing those around them diminishes both who they are and who they aspire to be.

Thanks for reading,

Note: The above post was drawn in part from my new book, The Career Activist Republic. To read more, get the book at Amazon.com, in many bookstores and on Weddles.com.