There Really are No Simple Questions

Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Clemson University, March 2021

One of the great joys and deepest secrets of university life is just how much fun it is to teach ethics. No one tells you this when you think about working in academia. Students ask amazing questions. You never know what the next class, or virtual conference, or email message might bring to the surface.

Let me share a recent conversation I had with one of my ethics students from the City of Guangzhou, in Guangdong, China.

We had just completed a comparison of codes of conduct issued by several major corporations. What we thought we wanted to learn was the recipe for creating a code of conduct that was effective at reinforcing ethical business conduct. We had similar reactions when we identified the codes that spoke to us. Yet, we just could not identify the ingredients that will produce a code of conduct that would surely promote ethical decisions and actions. We were disappointed to say the least
But our story does not end here.
A few days later,  one of my students—we’ll call her Lilly—asked this question:

“When I searched for the code of ethics of some companies, I found some of them, such as Samsung, starting the sentences with “the company” in their code of conduct. But for some others, such as Walmart and Microsoft, they use a lot of words like “we” and “our” that will definitely make its employees feel warm and a sense of belonging. However, some argue that it would make employees conduct some unethical practice due to their loyalty to their company. For example, A loyal employee may feel that making higher profits is good for the company, even if they are made unethically. So, what's your opinion about this?  Will this kind of language give people an impression that misconducts can be more easily forgiven?”

My goodness but Lilly asked some great questions. So, I sat and reflected on what was it that Lilly really wanted to learn. Was she asking whether the kind of pronouns used in a code of conduct really influenced how employees behave? Do pronouns really carry that kind of weight? Or was Lilly asking whether codes of conduct contribute to a kind of company team spirit that puts profit making ahead of all other goals? Was she asking whether companies should practice forgiveness when employees act unethically?
As I began to compose several responses to Lilly, my mind began to skip around. What do we actually know about these documents? Codes of conduct and codes of ethics come in all kinds of shapes, forms, styles, and depth of coverage. How they are written should impact how they are received and used by employees, managers and executives.
Some codes are clearly written to remind employees of their obligations to comply with policies of the organization and the laws that apply. Some codes are written to communicate the mutual rights, duties, and obligations that flow between the company as the employer and individual employees. Some organizations even include members of their boards of directors, their supply chain partners, and their consultants within the scope of who is covered by their code of conduct. 
Codes that are written in the second person (you, we, and us) rather than the third person (the employee, the company, the manager) are generally easier to read and understand. If you are asked to apply a provision of a code of conduct written with words like you, we and us, it will be easier to see yourself using the code to figure out what actions to take. Words like we, you and us generally communicate inclusion, access, and informality. Codes that use words like “we” and “you” are great equalizers, reducing power distance between the CEO and everyone else.
Codes that are written in the third person (the employee, the manager, they and them) communicate obedience to authority, hierarchy, responsibility, and compliance. They codes are more formal and more legalistic in tone. However, these kinds of codes may be legally accurate, but fail the ease of understanding test. 
So, let’s return to Lilly’s questions.  I really have not seen any connection between how a code uses pronouns and the inclination to put loyalty ahead of ethics,  or the willingness to cut corners. That comment, “willingness to cut corners” stayed with me. What was Lilly really asking? Perhaps at the very center of Lilly’s inquiry, she wants to learn why some employees do things right and some employees do things wrong.
Now – we are considering a very interesting inquiry. What is at the root of Lilly’s questions is something much more fundamental to our understanding of ethics and ethical decision-making. We are talking about that age-old question: why do people act unethically—and what can we do to reverse that inclination and help employees take the high road.
Like any good researcher, before we can discuss how to help employees do the right thing, we need to understand why people do wrong.
I believe that there are four categories of ethical wrong-doing: 

  1. Character: There are a few people who do wrong because they cannot distinguish right from wrong. There are a few people who do wrong because they do not care if they do right.  Perhaps, some employees are just jerks. I know that is not a very polite or pretty term. Yet, the good news is that there really aren’t that many people in the working world who act this way. However, if you hire a jerk, you will fire a jerk. 
  1. Information: In these cases, employees want to do right. However, either they do not have the information that they need, or they have the information but do not know how to use it. Perhaps, they just don’t know what the rules are, they cannot find rules or policies that they need, or they cannot see how to apply the rules to their own particular problem or situation. If the rules are not accessible or not written in a way that you understand what you are supposed to do, how on earth can you be expected to know the right way to act in a complex situation? 
  1. Expectations: In these situations, employees know what is right and wrong, and they can apply the relevant rules and policies. But they believe one of two things: either the company expects them to ignore the problem and just get on with the job.  Or employees experience the “Just Move-it” syndrome where they experience pressure from superiors to act immediately and ignore questions about how the task ought to be done.  Employees may believe that if they raise legitimate concerns, they will put themselves at career risk for having spoken up. 
  1. Judgment: In these cases, employees face true dilemmas where there is no clear right answer.  This reason why employees do wrong includes the classic gray area of moral judgment where there may be many wrong answers and several acceptable answers. Unfortunately, employees must often work in the dark, without any aid in developing and exercising moral judgment.
Many factors influence individuals’ actual workplace behavior. We don’t have much research on the extent to which the code of conduct by itself exerts any influence. However, when all of the ethics and compliance efforts are taken together, we do have some good insights into which interventions are likely to make a difference in how employees determine what is the right course of action to take.
  • People do what is rewarded and recognized. Praise and positive reinforcement really does change behavior.
  • People tend to avoid that which causes pain or discomfort. Compliance policies and rules that are overly complex or incomprehensible are less likely to be followed, because it may be just too difficult to figure out what you are expected to do.
  • People model their behavior on the observed actions of their “line of sight” boss. Our personal ethical decisions and actions are molded not just by what we read or the training we have received. We really do follow the lead of our immediate supervisors and bosses when it comes to ethical action.
  • People are more likely to follow ethics and compliance rules if they are aware of the policies and rules, someone explains how these rules can be applied to their specific work, and the rules and policies are easily available and written in an understandable way. 

And now, after much thought, I finally reached the point where I could offer some guidance to Lilly, my student. It’s not the code of conduct, or how it is written, that should be the focus of our conversation. It’s why do people act unethically – and more importantly, what can we do about it.

The very good news is that we can do quite a bit to encourage ethical action within organizations around the globe. We can start with building ethical awareness and encouraging conversations about ethics. We make sure that our rules, policies and expectations are clear, well written, and well thought through. Most importantly, we can make it as simple as possible to do things the right way, the first chance we get.