Trying to follow the rules or encouraging others to do so can be frustrating if people are ruled by moral relativism rather than a clear set of moral values. For these kinds of people we say that they lack a “moral compass.” Like a lost hiker in the woods, they go wherever their feelings, moods, needs, and peers go. In the workplace, losing your moral compass can mean big trouble because the stakes are high and you are held accountable for what you do. If you tend to panic in an ethical crisis or can’t seem to put your finger on why you make bad ethical decisions, take some time to realign your moral compass.
The metaphor of a compass is a pretty good one. A compass needle has two ends, one pointing North and the opposite end pointing South. Consider the north end to be the right direction, or the way you want to go. It points to the magnetic north pole. In your ethical world, consider the moral absolutes that guide your life to be the magnetic north pole. There aren’t any signs pointing you in that direction because it’s an invisible truth that simply exists without question. Your magnetic north pole could be truth, honesty, justice, fairness, morality or any other moral principle that leads to good, ethical behavior. The opposite end that points South is where you don’t want to go: untruthfulness, prejudice, rationalization, self-centeredness, etc.
If your moral compass is working properly, you can quickly judge decisions as either right or wrong based on where the needle is pointing. For example, you may be able make a lot of money by selling only the good benefits of a product and downplaying the faults. Without a moral compass, or perhaps a broken one, the ethical criterion for judging the situation lies with the emotional or material aspects of the situation. The needle just sits there and points to wherever you want it to go. Like a hiker lost in the woods, the direction you take may be good or not good, but after a turn or two, you’ll be hopelessly lost.
So, where should the North end of the compass point to? This is where a lot of people get hung up because we’ve bought into the notion that we need to take a non-judgmental, morally relative position in order to accommodate such a diverse society. But it’s not that hard. Understand that the vast majority of ethical issues that we face in the workplace are not at all ambiguous. Lying is always bad and bad things will happen if you do it. Stealing is bad and bad things will happen to you if you do it. The list of generally accepted good and bad moral behaviors goes on. And if you’re still not sure, there’s usually a thick rule book that your supervisor or HR department can provide that agrees with those general moral principles of right and wrong. Let this be your starting point.
If you are still unsure about where the good end of your moral compass should point, consider the following directions. First, you can rely on traditional societal norms and moral values. These are not the modern interpretations of traditional values but the age-old values of right and wrong that have been around since the dawn of civilization. Second, you can rely on what you are told by authorities over you and the policies that govern your world. The bottom line here is that what your employer says is right or wrong should be adhered to. Thirdly, your gut feeling. Oftentimes, those gut feelings about whether or not something is right wrong is your conscience trying to get your attention.
Of course, having a good compass at your disposal is not much good if you don’t bother to look at or follow it. Getting out the compass and taking the time to interpret it means that you can make clear moral distinctions between right and wrong. You must be able to make a decision. That is, you give yourself a reality check once in a while because you sense you need it and not because the boss, or any other extrinsic forces prompt you to.
The nice thing about learning to use your moral compass is that the more you do it, the better you become at interpreting it and trusting it. You will start to develop a mental library of what to do in similar situations. You will be able to rely on experience and instinct. Just as the experienced hiker in the woods is able to connect and interpret everything that is coming into his or her senses, you too will have the ability to get a feel for the environment around you in the workplace. Eventually, there will become a point where your intuition and moral compass become one and you know in your heart, without thinking, what is the right thing to do.
There’s a certain level of peace that comes with knowing where you stand. Your mind is clearer, your perceptions are truer, and your decisions are easier. In the jungle, that is your workplace, don’t become a lost explorer who wanders in circles without a compass. Know where that little red arrow on the North end is pointing. As you head for the right direction, don’t forget to grab a few lost wanderers and take them with you.
These FREE 30-minute educational webinars are offered at 10:00am (PST) on the 3rd Thursday of each month and are taught by recognized ethics and compliance experts. Webinars as open to anyone in the compliance, HR, or leadership community to encourage, educate, and provide a forum for professional discourse.