Sometimes, the ethical thing to do is to not do anything. Baker Wright explains why.
Lying, cheating, stealing. Making a clumsy pass at a co-worker. Having financial dealings with the same person who does your taxes. You have heard the stories. Your HR department has warned against them. You might even have a company pamphlet in your desk (where it has been since orientation) that describes appropriate workplace behavior. Hopefully, you have some moral compass that tells you what is right and what is wrong, and that keeps you within the boundaries of what we typically describe as ethical behavior and good business. These are all behaviors talked about frequently and regurgitated in company ethics trainings or memos, but this is all pretty much the Ethics 101. I think we need to talk about something else. If you need a refresher on why you should not download your company’s Microsoft Office on your home computer, go back a few steps and catch up. Here is something not seen that often, I’ll call it the “competency catch.”
Men are thought to be problem solvers, or at least those who want to be problem solvers: “Hey, you’re a man. What do you think is wrong with my car? It won’t start.” How tempting it is to pick up the hood, roll up your sleeves, and peer into the smoke-filled cave that is the engine compartment and say, “I think you have a problem here.”
Seriously, when was the last time you did any engine maintenance? Really.
As men in the business world, we are often put into situations where we are asked to perform tasks, answer questions, or solve problems we are far from qualified to solve. Just because you wear a tie and walk out of a bank every day at 5:05 pm does not mean you know loan modification. Just because you plant trees all day in the searing heat (and do a damn good job at it) does not mean you can give soil erosion assessments. These are seemingly miniscule issues of operating a good and ethical business, but practicing within your competency is foundational pillar of how you ethically operate in your daily work. Let me tell a part of my story.
I am a behavior analyst. My degree is in psychology. I hate haircuts. Not only because I am in less and less need of them recently, and not because the cuts typically expose more grey, but for the first five minutes I sit in that seat: “So, what do you do?” I hate this question. Try sitting down in front of a stylist and saying, “I’m a psychologist” or, worse yet, “I work with kids with behavior problems.” Better buckle in for the long haul…you are about to get it (and a sub par haircut).
Although I am tempted to answer the questions, to listen closely, and offer some advice about marital problems and teen drug use, I have to force myself to weasel out of the situation. “Being nice” and “giving some simple advice” in this situation breaks the ethical standard of appropriate practice. I don’t know a thing about what she is talking about. I’m not a therapist. I have not been trained to deal with drug abuse. I am not competent. People ask about how to deal with death, how to tell their parents they are crazy…I don’t know! I have to resist every urge to inject myself into those situations. I am confident enough in what I do, I feel like I could probably add some insight into what might be going on. I want to fix it. I want to “look under the hood.” It is simply not right to do. I have be man enough to step aside and dodge it…NOT give advice.
Working within one’s competency is crucial to maintain ethical practices, and, therefore, an ethical business. This has become more difficult recently as smaller niche businesses are being sucked into larger big box companies where the lines are thin between what you can and should not do. For example, say you have been trained all your life to sell auto insurance. You were one of the more trusted agents in town. You could not hang on to your small family business, and now work for a larger agency that insures everything from 4-year-olds to 4-wheelers. Add to that an economy that has everyone fighting for business and customers. That is not the best set up to easily act ethically, since some of this will mean you are turning down customers, or disappointing some you already have: “I am not the best person to talk to about that” or “actually, we do not sell that type of insurance so you might want to look at So-and-so and Associates down the road.” Acting for the benefit of your customers might not benefit you or your business at all. That is the point. You turn them to someone who can do what they need done even if it means them walking out of your door without a transaction. A solid ethical business is not about the transaction.
In my line of work, the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), we are getting more and more publicity for our work with children with Autism. More information is coming out on the efficacies of ABA therapy and parents are starving for someone competent to do it. Unfortunately, not all Behavior Analysts are trained to work with children with Autism. It matters. As more and more insurance companies open their doors to ABA therapy provided by Board Certified Behavior Analysts, the work of Behavior Analysis is growing. This has put many a Behavior Analyst in the “competency catch.” They might be very well trained in what they do, but they might not have any specific training or expertise with children with Autism. Parents plead, “Please, can you help me with my child?” Not competent? Sorry. Don’t get caught.
With all of the stories in the news about corruption, politicians with extramarital affairs (some resulting in children), and Ponzi schemes, it is easy to focus on the “big ones,” and act as if you are maintaining the highest of ethical standards in your work and business. It is easy to let the finer things slide. Those things at the top of the slippery slope don’t seem so slippery. I put these issues related to competency right there at the edge. But, just like other problems in the workplace, something seemingly (but not at all) small can turn into a much bigger mess. Do what you do and be great at it. Be honest with your customers and the core values of your business by NOT doing the other stuff.
Photo by Abhi/Flickr