We’ve all heard the statement, “Ignorance is no excuse.” Whether from an angry boss or an IRS agent, getting excused by stating, “But, I didn’t know!” is about as good as saying nothing at all. So many ethical crises are a result of ignorance: Ignorance of the law, ignorance of what others are doing, or ignorance of basic rules or procedures. Although there is no defense for ignorance, there is a defense against ignorance.
Knowledge and common sense provides the best defense against ignorance. The ethical way out is not with damage control but in preventive educational measures. But simply avoiding ignorance through education may not be as easy as it sounds. Trying to keep on top of the mountain of laws, rules, codes, guidelines, and policies that bury you every day can be overwhelming. You simply can’t know everything. Who knows how may laws you have unwittingly broken today? If federal and state regulators went through your business with a fine-toothed comb right now, they probably wouldn’t have to dig too deeply to find something wrong that you missed due to ignorance. But the problem of ignorance and ethics is not about knowing it all, but about knowing the right information.
Understand that there are certain bodies of knowledge that you simply must learn. These may be referred to as “no excuses” stuff. They are both specific to your job and are general pieces of ethical knowledge that everyone should know. As for the latter, you can’t claim ignorance when it comes to society’s basic ethical standards of right and wrong. As a functioning member of society with a reasonable intellect and common sense, you can’t claim ignorance when it comes to harassment, lying, illegal activities, physical harm, or other ethical “no-brainers.”
As for your job-specific “no excuses” information, when you agree to accept employment, you agree to learn certain rules and guidelines associated with your job. Besides your job description, what kinds of things should you know?
First, you must learn the law. You are expected to comply with all state and federal laws as they apply to your job, no excuses. Although legal counsel may be needed in some cases, you should have enough legal knowledge in your head to operate most aspects of your job without it. Adequate knowledge of the law with a bit of common sense can prevent most ethical problems most of the time.
Second, you must learn enough to be safe on the job. Safety should be your primary concern. Ignorance should never be the cause of workplace accidents.
Third, you should know how your industry works. Expand your knowledge outside your own world and get the big picture. Know how your company and job fits in the marketplace. Know who’s who inside your company and who buys your products. The more you learn about your industry the more valuable you are as an informed and knowledgeable employee. Additionally, you will better understand how decisions are made and where you fit.
Fourth, strive to become an expert in what you do. Take your knowledge to the next level. Don’t be content with simply knowing how to survive until quitting time but learn what it takes to do excellent work. You will learn to quickly handle problems without wavering. You will make better decisions. You will perform better and have a better outlook on your work.
In many cases ignorance can land you in just as much trouble as if you intentionally did something wrong. Sure, you can’t know everything, but the fact that you can know something puts the ball in your court. Anybody, even the most honest, ethical individual, can find him or herself in ethical hot water by being ignorant.
By taking some simple preventive measures you will greatly reduce your chances of being in an ethical meltdown with ignorance as your only excuse. By taking ignorance out of the equation, you are free to focus your energy on your job rather than making excuses. The very core of ethics requires one to know something about right and wrong. This body of knowledge extends beyond moral principles and includes the facts, laws, and rules that govern what we do.