The Ethics Sage Explains Ethical Behavior

Rules for Ethical Behavior in Life and the Workplace

(This is a guest column by Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage. This is a great privilege for me. He is allowing me to post this before it appears anywhere else. You see it here first!)

The Ethics Sage
The Ethics Sage

Have you ever taken something from your employer’s workplace thinking nothing was wrong with “borrowing” office supplies for your home or using company software on your home computer? Surveys consistently show that about 20% of workers take something from their employer that doesn’t belong to them and use it for personal purposes. Well, not only are these people engaging in “asset misappropriation” but they become untrustworthy employees.

So, where do we draw the line between a minor offense that may be excusable and one much more significant that warrants a strong response from management? Well, folks, it doesn’t work that way. There is no materiality test on what is right and what is wrong. Taking something that belongs to your employer is no different than taking something from your neighbor’s house without their permission. Would you go to your neighbor’s medicine chest and take some pharmaceutical item? Of course not so why do the same where your employer is concerned?

Many people do not understand what ethics is. Ethics are not like a spigot that you can turn on and turn off. The ancient Greeks knew that ethics requires practice – practice doing the right thing so that it becomes habitual. Good ethics is dependent upon repetitive acts. It becomes part of your DNA. It’s almost as if you don’t have to think about what the right thing to do is. It becomes instinctive.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you deliberate about what action you should take.

  1. What is the nature of my ethical dilemma (i.e. taking something that doesn’t belong to me; a conflict of interest; or how I treat someone else).
  2. Who are the stakeholders potentially affected by my actions? (i.e. my employer; a co-worker; a friend or family member).
  3. What are the potential consequences of my action? (e.g. potential harms and benefits of my intended action).
  4. Am I potentially violating any party’s rights? (e.g. employer’s right of loyalty; confidentiality; fair-treatment of others).
  5. Reflect on your intended action. How would you feel if your intended action made the front pages of tomorrow’s paper? Would you be proud of your action? Could you defend it?

Some ethical decision-making rules are:

  1. Ethics are not relative to the situation; they are based on long-standing norms of society. Ethics/ethical behavior is based on certain immutable traits of character (i.e. virtues) such as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility.
  2. The ends do not justify the means. The way in which you get to your goal is just as important as getting there. If not, you might rationalize an unethical action by saying it accomplishes your goal.
  3. The rights of one party affected by my action directly influences my ethical obligation to that party. My employer has a right to expect me not to divulge confidential information so I have an ethical obligation to act accordingly.

What if you make a mistake; do something you later regret; and want to acknowledge your mistake? Here is my advice in that regard.

  1. Admit your mistake in no uncertain terms; don’t rationalize your misbehavior.
  2. Seem genuinely remorseful for your actions; you’re not admitting it because you got caught.
  3. Promise never to do it again; make amends to those harmed by your actions.
  4. Take steps to change any behavioral patterns that led to your mistake.

We all do things that we regret later on. It’s how we handle the next step that counts most. The problem in business is many try to cover up their actions and their misdeed becomes much worse. One lie begets another until they are sliding down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope” and there is no way to reverse course and seek the moral high ground.

I like to think of ethics as what we do when no one is looking. There is a difference between what you have a right to do and what the right thing to do is. Moreover, under pressure a person’s true character is revealed. You can’t always control the situation you find yourself in, but you can control how you react to it.

Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, is a Professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He blogs at

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