Let’s talk about it

In many workplaces, talking about ethics is likely to brand you at best as naive and at worst as a traitor to the organization. And yet, it’s a necessary conversation.

I have been thinking about why we teach ethics. There seems to be a consensus that requiring people to attend ethics training is a good thing. CPA BC has a mandatory ethics component to its CPE requirements and the course I teach at the University of Waterloo is required for all students in the accounting and finance program. Aside from creating employment for people like me, what is the point?

Although the teaching methods for university students differ from those aimed at experienced professionals, the commonly cited objectives are the same:

• requiring ethics training reinforces the seriousness with which the institution (academic or professional) takes ethical lapses and the importance it puts on ethical behaviour;

• looking at cases of ethical failure reminds people of the risks they run if they cheat, and may scare them into staying on the straight and narrow;

• working through how other people have written about ethics (from ancient philosophers to leaders in the profession) may introduce people to ideas they had not considered; and

• discussing ethics may inspire people to behave more ethically in the future (although inspiring students is rare and fleeting, in my experience).

The trouble is that ethics training can have the opposite effect. If we study Enron, Bernie Madoff or other famous cases, we can congratulate ourselves that “we” would never do such a thing. I have observed that people who go through life convinced of their righteousness are the ones most likely to do bad things without noticing. In addition, if you are honest with students, they will realize that doing the right thing often takes courage and may cost them a lot, at least in the short term.

So I have some additional objectives when I teach ethics.

Self-knowledge: we all have an almost infinite capacity to rationalize our actions. So it’s critical to know that we can easily be led astray, and that what seems like a logical justification may in fact be just a way to feel good about doing something bad. This is why behavioural ethics is important and why I am always looking for ways to get people to reflect on their own actions. The most self-aware reaction to the case of Andy Fastow, Enron’s former CFO, is “that could have been me.”

Skill: sometimes we know we are being asked to do something unethical, but we don’t know how to refuse. People who can convince others that cheating is not in their best interest, who know how to enlist allies and who can re-frame the dilemma into a win-win scenario are most likely to navigate difficult ethical dilemmas successfully.

Normalizing the conversation: getting people to talk about, and disagree about, ethics is an important goal. This type of discussion has two key results. First, we all need practice in thinking through and articulating our ethical principles and their application in specific cases. Second, it helps people get used to talking about ethics. In business, we seem to be uncomfortable talking about right and wrong, and instead fall back on whether something falls within the rules. If you see bad behaviour and you want to raise it in conversation, you say that it violates GAAP or the professional independence rules or the tax law or the code of conduct. Or you point out that it might damage customer relations or result in a lawsuit. Why is it so hard to say that something is just wrong?

The trouble with sticking to the rules is you can’t write a provision to cover every kind of unethical behaviour. And an over-emphasis on rules can tempt people to look for loopholes rather than trying to stick to the intent.

Unfortunately, in many workplaces, talking about ethics is likely to brand you at best as naive and at worst as a traitor to the organization. Ethics training cannot in and of itself change this attitude, but it can make the conversation a little easier to initiate.

If you don’t have time to take a course, here’s a conversation starter: “I know there’s no rule against it, but it feels wrong to me. Can we talk about it?”