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Below is my contribution honoring a request to dispense thoughts on Professional vs. Personal Ethical Conflicts.
Shared Insights with Laura Woods | On Record: June 2022
What strategies do you recommend people take, when faced with a conflict between professional and personal ethics?
First, define your principles and ethics. Sometimes in society people are 'culturally' ethical, they say they believe in certain ideologies yet they fail to practice them. Culturally ethical means they will choose beliefs, like rituals, that align with their end goal to appease whether it's an audience or their conscience. These are fleeting ethics that float around like a leaf in the wind. If the individual has a set of principles they feel strongly about as well as practice them as a lifestyle, then explore which principles are possibly negotiable and non-negotiable. We're not lowering our standards in terms of our personal & professional development. It's important to understand the baseline of one's ethics prior to deciphering our environment by slating everything to fall into an ‘ethical or unethical’ bucket.
Second, we all can benefit from a reality check. Life is gray whether we like it or not. We need to tap within who we are by understanding our comfort zones as well as acknowledging that everyone's reality is derived from different seeds of life. We may come from the same tree but everyone represents some branch or leaf that appears foreign to us. Sensibility needs to be present when identifying and assessing any professional & personal ethics are in question. If we don’t understand a circumstance, it doesn’t automatically yield to be unethical. This is where learning and listening play a key role that can help us decide whether any conflicts go against our personal ethics, family values, cultural influences, religious (or lack of) beliefs and any ideologies that an individual relies upon to strengthen their ethical boundaries. People need to understand hosting a difference in opinion is not the same as adhering to ethics that may vary in some shape or form.
Third, ask yourself whether you can live with the ramifications of co-existing with these personal and professional ethical conflicts. Context matters. For example, it's different if a vegan is working in a meat manufacturing plant because it's the only job available in one's geographic vicinity due to the high unemployment rate in the market. This individual is focused on earning a paycheck to keep their lights on and feeding their family in the name of survival. They may feel professionally conflicted for working in such a setting (which is likely not their first job choice) but at the same time they understand they are not expected to engage in consuming these meat products which still respects their personal ethics. Maybe this person entertained the role due to its generous pay and benefits, which provides for their needs. This person may promise themselves to leave this job once something better comes along, or they may choose to stay as long as they are not being forced to adhere to a certain lifestyle that changes their personal beliefs and lifestyle habits.
On the other hand, if a candidate is facing concerns over remaining in a work environment that is turning into a hotbed of potential lawsuits due to illegal workplace practices, or an entity facing bankruptcy due to their poor business acumen - jump ship. Potential firings without cause, or a celebratory pink slip party will signal layoffs. We all need to pick our battles carefully because there are ethical life trials which challenge our belief systems from time to time. There is no formula for navigating these life challenges, no profession or industry is immune from them.
It's the human condition - what are we truly seeking from life and/or work? What is the price we're willing to pay for achievement without going against ourselves? There is no right or wrong answer. It's a matter of learning how to cope with reality. No workplace is a utopia, it’s the employee’s responsibility to define their utopia and then seek it out. Unfortunately, some organizations lack the demeanor and presentation to exercise authentic practices to protect the organization AND its people from falling prey to lies, scandals and abuse in the workplace. Staying or leaving an unethical organization doesn't make one more virtuous or upstanding of an individual. It's easier to judge than to anticipate that we may find ourselves in such a situation without a warning. It can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere. As shared earlier, context matters.
How do people justify working for unethical companies?
People need to know their 'why' for taking an opportunity. It doesn't matter if it’s for a paycheck, or whether it's the desire to develop oneself further in a career path. First, we need to acknowledge not all people working in an organization are vigilant enough to recognize their employer is an unethical organization. Second, bad companies do happen to good people. These good people come in all forms and titles willing to contribute to an entity as part of their professional mission. Once it's discovered the organization is unethical, it's the individual’s decision to stay or go. Before making such a decision, we need to explore in what ways is the company unethical - are they not paying their employees on time, are they lying about their financial health, is there verbal abuse or sexual harassment present, is substance abuse overlooked, are employees at risk of physical harm, are customers cheated of products & services, are employees stealing time (and pay) from work, is employee discrimination present, are business documents being forged, is there an pyramid scheme taking place; etc. Before a company is classified as unethical, we need to be careful with all the 'labeling' society practices to force life circumstances to fit some mold. Many people need to become mindful of their lifestyle and professional choices because feelings and reactions will not necessarily dictate whether a company is ethical or not. In the court of law, the justice system will rely upon facts if such professional & personal ethical conflicts eventually evolve into a legal case.
For example, one candidate may legitimately identify unethical practices that can be proven, measured, and classified to help with an investigation. The act of suspecting a company is unethical can be used against an employee as a discriminatory and defamatory measure if the employee can't prove their claims. The latter is dictated by who initiated the investigation and a few additional legal variables. The unfortunate yet tricky reality pertaining to proving unethical behaviors, decisions and outcomes is that time must act as an ally for these alleged claims to unfold. Speaking of time, employees need to assess whether their professional and personal ethical conflicts are situational or persistent. Why and how? Ethics is a space in the professional realm that stirs a lot of questions because there are many technicalities present. This is a reality, not a personal opinion. In my profession, I meet people who are 200% clear with their interpretations of life while others are more realistic as they actively decipher the reality that unfolds before them in the workplace. The audience may immediately judge the overly confident individual to be ignorant, while the realistic employee learns to balance their personal sensibilities alongside their organization's values. We as a society do not control the perceptions of employees, they are accountable for their interpretation of workplace activities.
Should someone leave a position/company they are not ethically aligned with?
If this pertains to someone's personal beliefs, it may be wise to explore new opportunities in the market. The inner resistance due to the inner conflict(s) will not go away. You can fight them, silence them and drown them with distractions (but) they will not go away. Sooner or later, most people turn into the company they keep. It comes down to one's personal threshold. What are they willing to co-exist with? I'm aware most people are not willing to live with an overwhelming feeling in their day to day lives. They want to focus on their work, not constantly fight mental and emotional battles to get through the work day. Life is short, it's not worth the torture. As long as the individual is not facing any form of workplace abuse or being asked to change their values to remain employed, they need to learn how to fight these battles. It's their personal decision which follows a string of ramifications. If it's a professional conflict of interest, it's better to either resolve it while employed, or move on before such conflicts become a potential legal liability. Again, we need to address specific details to weigh the outcomes of staying employed in such organizations. Remaining in such circumstances doesn't improve situations.
Also facing such professional challenges can be a good test of faith and character because not many people question their ethics until they are facing challenges that require a closer look within their belief systems and lifestyle choices. About seventy percent of the time people need to learn how to make better decisions by extracting lessons learned from their life experiences. If people choose to work in third party organizations, they need to host realistic expectations of professional co-existence because this is a business transaction. Some companies receive a bad reputation because the employees they’ve hired are not ideal hires for their culture and business operations. When the standard deviation grows between a company and its staff, it’s time to objectively audit whether good operational efforts are getting lost in poor execution and/or translation, or whether the company needs an intervention to redefine its identity before it’s forced out of existence due to poor performance by its staff.
- Contributor Sasha Laghonh