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Are Business Ethics Any Different Than Regular Ethics?

Morley Surcon By Morley Surcon,
Vice-President, Western Canada at Eagle

Whether you’re a manager, a contractor or an employee, don’t surprise yourself with the answer!

Palmer and CecilThere has been a lot of recent news about the Dentist who, along with his paid guide, lured a protected lion from a sanctuary to shoot it as a trophy.  Did he trust his guide too much and forget to question his own ethics as he claims?  Or was it more likely that his own personal ethics had been “expanded” to allow for this behavior?  The latter happens much more often than one might think.

There is a lesser known concept called the Normalization of Deviation that explains the human tendency to “push the boundaries”.  Astronaut Mike Mullane speaks about this concept in a speech, where he explains the details around the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and how normalization of deviance created a situation that he calls a “predictable surprise”.  Mike uses this story to illustrate how on-the-job safety can be and often is compromised.

Are Business Ethics Any Different Than Regular Ethics?This concept can also be used to explain how one finds themselves on the wrong side of an ethical dilemma, without even realizing how this came to be.  It goes something like this:  you are an ethical person and you draw a line in the sand that you would never cross.  However, life happens and you inadvertently – not on purpose – put your toe over the line.  Not a big deal, not much over the line, and when you realize it you quickly correct the situation.  What happened to you as a result of crossing that line?  Most typically, nothing.  In fact, you may have reaped a small reward or benefit from having it happen.  Hmm.

What separates us from other animals is our ability to rationalize and this kicks in. There were special circumstances, no one was hurt, no “real damage” was done, it could even be said that it was a good thing that it happened.  You’ve now rationalized the deviation from your ethics.  This was “ok” and, after all, at heart, you are an ethical person.

Time goes by and a similar situation comes up. The last “solution” actually worked pretty well and there were no negative consequences.  A quick fix where no one really gets hurt, solves the problem and lets you continue on your way?  Well, you’ve already rationalized this  so this time you cross the line on purpose.  Again, not a big deal, no negative consequences, and the issue is resolved.  All good, right?  Yes, except that your “line” has now moved — just a little — hardly worth noticing.  This new line becomes the new normal and you don’t even think about it anymore. It works, it’s ok, no repercussions — it’s now a good solution.

The next time, maybe the situation is just a little different and your toe inadvertently crosses the line again.  You pull it back quickly and… hmm… nothing bad really happened, but you swear that this is too far, you should never do it again.  But over time you rationalize again. It’s what humans do and has been a successful strategy bred into us over eons.  It happens again,  it becomes your new “normal”, and the line moves again.

Over a few cycles of this, if you stopped to consider, you would realize that you are no longer just a toe over the original line that you had drawn in the sand but rather a giant step past.  Then you get caught and wonder how did you ever let yourself get to this place?

ChallengerThis concept can help explain how some, completely avoidable, accidents could have been prevented (even predicted as in the case of the space shuttle disaster).  But it also explains how people can find themselves fighting addiction, how people find themselves on the wrong side of the law, or how they get caught compromising some of their most fundamental beliefs and personal ethics.

In this respect, Business Ethics are no different.  In fact, I would argue that there are more frequent opportunities for finding your toe over the line in business.  More iterations of the cycle and the further over the line you can go.  You may have wondered how people can start “Ponzi Schemes”. Their beginnings may have been as innocuous as a simple toe over the line that did not immediately get stepped on.  They may not have started out as “bad people”.

It is worth taking some time to review your own beliefs, your own ethical standards and look to see if your own line has moved over time.  If not, very good, carry on.  If so, consider, is it something that should be corrected, before it does catch up on you?

There is nothing more soul-wrenching than finding yourself a victim of your own personal predictable surprise.

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