In business, image is everything. Your physical appearance is just as important as your sales pitch. This is why you pay homage to the mirror each morning, picking out the right outfit, grooming, to show the world by your outward appearance that you are a serious professional. There is no questioning the fact that physical appearance is a critical component in how you are perceived, but what about your ethical appearance? Sure, you may see yourself looking like a million bucks but what others see behind the facade might be a penniless pauper.
Make no mistake; the ethical impression you leave with others communicates volumes about your character. People will judge you more quickly and more deeply based on your actions rather than your clothes. No matter how clean your suit, leaving a soiled perception of your ethics can negate whatever outward impression you attempt to make.
All it takes is one simple act or oversight to start the ball rolling. It can cause an unfortunate chain of events that may tarnish your reputation forever. Perhaps you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time? Maybe you’re caught with your hand in the cookie jar? Or possibly you did something truly foolish and wish you could start over. Whatever the transgression, an indelible impression has been made and now you’re trying to row upstream. Unfortunately, there is a part of our human nature that gets satisfaction in another’s misfortune and rushes to pass judgment instantaneously.
The problem with human perception is that we will usually assume the worst when we see others in trouble. What are your coworkers and supervisors supposed to think when they see your car trunk full of company tools? To what conclusions will they come if they find your personal papers in the copy machine feeder or see you leave work early? What people see with their own eyes becomes reality for them. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, it only matters what others perceive truth to be.
What happens after that fateful perception is made, you can’t control. Gossip, hearsay, even outright lies are sure to have plenty of willing listeners and believers. Forget whatever you’ve heard about being judged fairly in a court of law, this is the real word. Having your character judged by your fellow employees based on mere circumstance is about as final as it gets. The tragedy here is that once an ethical impression is made, there’s little you can do to stop or repair it. Damage control may set the record straight to some extent, but a wounded reputation may be impossible to heal.
A crisis of ethical perception is not only a problem for liars, cheaters, and bad guys; it’s a problem for everyone. The first line of defense is to understand that you’re not above the fray. Just because you’re an honest person doesn’t mean that you won’t wake up tomorrow and find yourself in full-fledged ethical dilemma. We all have bouts of mistakes, sloppiness, miscalculation, panic, or bad judgment. Understanding our fallibility and being ethically cognitive of our day-to-day behavior helps enormously. If you’re lucky, your conscience will do most of the watchful work for you. But beware that you don’t close your eyes and let your guard down.
Another line of defense is to truly care about how others perceive your behavior. At any given time, even in the most mundane and insignificant actions of your workday, you are being judged. Think of your coworkers as judges at an Olympic-style event holding up numbers to evaluate your ethical performance. When all is said and done, you hope to perform so that they will hold up tens and not ones. You should care what people think and want others to see you do the right thing. You want to be defined on the basis of your good character.
Finally, you should avoid the appearance of impropriety all costs. Just as an attorney looks at every possible angle or potential problem, you too, must judge your ethical actions in the same way. Leave no stone unturned. Cover your bases. Be transparent and open to scrutiny. Take time with careful consideration to make sure that your ethical position appears sound from every angle.
Don’t leave others to second guess you. Perception is everything, not only in your looks but in your character. Treasure and protect your ethical reputation like a priceless commodity. Tomorrow, as you prepare and primp in the mirror for your best physical appearance at work, don’t forget your ethical appearance. It costs you nothing to put on, but costs you dearly to lose