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Successful HR Professionals Just Say "No" to Zombie Ethics!

Bruce Weinstein
· Jul 5, 2022
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Some wrongful ideas about ethics just won't stay dead. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman uses the term zombie to refer to a misunderstanding that refuses to die. In this blog post, we will look at one dangerous idea you would do well to send to the cemetery for good. It's a myth about ethics. And if you want your career in HR and your organization to flourish, you cannot afford to ignore it or to hope that it will go away on its own. It won't. It needs your help.

The zombie idea we'll look at is this: “There are no right or wrong answers in ethics.” To explain why there are in fact right or wrong answers in ethics and why you should care about it, and what the implications of this idea are for your HR practice. I want to tell you a true story, but I'm going to change some of the names of the people involved.

A true, disturbing story

Dirk was a popular employee at a large consulting firm who started off as an accounting clerk. Because he was always willing to take on extra assignments. His supervisor asked him if he would like to do some of the bank reconciliations. Dirk did not have training in bookkeeping, but he jumped at the chance to move up. That was the beginning of a problem that would ultimately have dire consequences for both Dirk and his company. 

Not long after Dirk started doing the bookkeeping assignment, he discovered he was out of his league. But instead of going to someone and getting help, he just changed the numbers and made them balance. 

The problem became compounded over time because a few small changes lead to big changes. Somehow Dirk was able to keep this charade going for several years without anyone suspecting what was going on. 

One day dirt approached Oliver, a senior consultant, and confessed dirt felt terrible and said he knew he had to come to terms with his fraudulent activities. The firm spent a lot of money to get the matter straightened out and Dirk was fired. People at every level of the company were shocked when the news came out. In fact, some people thought it was an unfounded rumor. Since dirt seemed like the last person to do such things. 

Oliver told me that had dirt found the strength early on to tell his supervisor that he was in over his head and needed help. The bank statements would have been reconciled properly, and Dirk would still be happily employed with the firm. But he lacked the courage to say I'm sorry, but I just can't do this work. Such an admission would have been difficult to make. 

Perhaps Dirk felt he would be letting his supervisor down. But as unpleasant as it surely would have been. What actually happened was far worse. The downside to saying “I can't handle this assignment” is a temporary loss of face a sympathetic supervisor could have responded with, “I appreciate your letting me know, That couldn't have been easy for you to do Dirk.” 

Instead, Dirk winds up costing the company a small fortune, causing a lot of frustration and anger and losing his job all because he lacked the courage to be honest when he needed to be.

What does this story how to do with the zombie idea, “There are no right or wrong answers in ethics”?

Suppose Dirk worked for you. And instead of confessing to you, you discovered his fraudulent activity. 

Let's also suppose that Dirks responds, “Well, you think it's wrong, but to me, it's right. I need the money. And this is the only way I was able to get it. So you have your ideas about what's right and wrong, and I have mine.”

What's your response to that? I'm sure that you would say, “No, Dirk, you don't merely have a different point of view.  You have a mistaken point of view. Just because you believe that what you did was right doesn't make it right.”

You might conclude by saying, “Some things are objectively right, Dirk, and some things are objectively wrong. What you did is objectively wrong.”

And you'd be right!

More zombie ideas about ethics

There are a lot of other myths about ethics that can damage your good work in HR if you're not careful. Those myths include:

  • “What is right or wrong varies from culture to culture.”
  • “If it's legal, it's ethical.”
  • “Business ethics is an oxymoron.”
  • “It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
  • “It's OK to tell a white lie.”
  • “It's ethical to fire someone by email.”
  • “It's appropriate to use the phrase 'drinking the Kool-Aid®' to refer to followership at its worse.”
  • "It's good to stay in your job for as long as possible."
     

If you're interested in exploring these, I invite you to sign up for my course, Successful HR Professionals Just Say "No" to Zombie Ethics!, right here!

Thank you for reading my blog post! I hope you're having a good day.

Gratefully,

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D., The Ethics Guy
Forbes Contributor
Ethics Trainer and Speaker

P.S. Take my free ethics test here and find out how ethical you are! This article was originally published in Forbes.

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