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Making Ethics Meaningful: Getting Past the Obvious

Read through the company’s code of conduct and it won’t take long to find a statement that seems to insult your intelligence. “Stealing company owned equipment is prohibited.” After scanning (not reading) several pages of these profound proclamations, you sign-off on the last page swearing to uphold every letter in the code. Relieved that the ordeal is behind you, an email arrives requesting your presence at a four-hour ethics training on the subject. Your reaction is typical; “This is obvious stuff. I don’t need it!” With work piling up, you have to take four hours out of your busy day to “learn” about the obvious. At this point, it seems that the only good thing about the ethics training will be the donuts provided in the morning.

This is where most people find themselves. Ethics is a no-brainer. Its principles are obvious. Bad guys are bad, and good guys are good. Just do the right thing and you’ll stay out of trouble. Most rational adults know this and wasting so much precious time seems unnecessary. The problem with this line of thinking is that: A) it’s not true, and B) It glosses over an area of vast importance to our character, way of life, and happiness.
Ethics is anything but a no-brainer. The reason why people might think this is that they limit their perspective to the obvious and fail to see meaningful principles that lie beneath. Let’s explore some examples:

Obvious: “The company is simply required to conduct ethics training.”
Past the Obvious: True, required ethics training is a given in our modern era, but consider what your work-life would be like without it. Consider working day-to-day alongside a group of people without clear moral behavioral guidance? What would it be like to work for a company with non-existent core values? What kind of atmosphere would ensue? Ethics training creates an absolutely critical common understanding of what is right and good at work. You may not always agree, but the standard is set. It brings unity in areas of personal behavior that human nature tends to scatter in every direction. In a moral sense, it creates a level playing field so everyone is on the same page.

Obvious: “Good ethics is obvious.”
Getting Past the Obvious: Since most people tend to associate with other like-minded people, it’s no surprise that we think that everyone thinks and behaves the same as we do. Well, they don’t. If you put a basic ethical principle such as, “What is lying?” in front of a group of people, you will see argument, debate, and divisiveness. We soon discover that everything is up for interpretation.

Ethics is not as obvious as it seems. Life is full of conflicting moral choices that require us to prefer one set of values over another. Ethics training is needed to clarify ethical boundaries and give people the necessary tools to make choices. It mandates what is right or wrong in the workplace rather than leaving it up to the individual to decide.

Obvious: “People are good and don’t need ethics training.”
Past the Obvious: For centuries, philosophers have debated the question, “Is man innately good?” Although the goodness of man will continue to be debated for ages to come, in the context of business ethics, the assumption is made that man needs as much help as he can get. The odds are stacked against man with history and human nature providing ample evidence. Even the concept of right or wrong evolves on many levels within a culture. It’s simply not enough to assume that people are good and they will make good choices. Ethics training not only speaks to the bad people but also serves as a wake-up call to the rest of us. Just knowing that the odds are stacked against us, prepares us for the inevitable, when we find ourselves where we shouldn’t be. It is good and healthy to consider our moral state and get a tune-up once in a while.

Make an effort to look past the obvious. The next time you read the corporate values statement hanging in the lobby, think about the meaning of those words. Think about the values by which you live. Appreciate the fact that you live and work in a culture that has them. Don’t shortchange yourself with the obvious, but see past it. Walk into that ethics training room ready to think, question, and learn and look forward to something more than the donuts.

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