Your Conscience At Work: Moral Debates that Matter

To download or not to download the song or software? To give back the accidental refund or not? To lie or not to lie? These are issues of conscience. They are the classic battles of right versus wrong waged in our minds. Like a cartoon, imagine an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other engaged in a fierce moral debate.

“Do the right thing,” you hear in a pleasant voice from the angel. The angel, of course, is the moral conscience, arguing for truth, honesty, and doing the “right” thing.
“Awe, come on! Don’t listen to that sissy,” says the little devil on the other shoulder, as he argues the side of rationalization, self-satisfaction, and convenience. And back and forth they go.

Use this imagery to help you put the daily workplace moral debates of conscience in context. The workplace contains no shortage of ethical tests. Keeping the customer happy, making the sale, looking good for the boss, protecting a reputation, making more money and so on. The pressure to succeed, please everyone, and make money provide a range of ethical choices leading in opposite directions.

For a philosophical exercise, look at the big fish then the little fish and their striking similarities. The “big fish” are the high profile corrupt executives in media who can be considered the most hated men in business. They had ethics choices to make. In their decision-making process, all the classic human rationalizations were there. The standard moral justifications probably made perfect sense. Greed and self-centeredness trumped all other ethical considerations. You know the drill. We’ve all had those feelings come up from time to time.

For a moment, put aside the sheer amount of money and damage, and boil it down to the root ethical choices involved. On a philosophical level, how different are the moral justifications of the big fish different from the ones we use. Aren’t the fundamental principles of honesty, selflessness, and integrity the same? “Absolutely not!” you say. “No slippery slope is so steep as to allow me to be caught-up in something like that!”

To some extent this is true. Murder or stealing millions is not even on the minds of most people. We all have moral lines not to be crossed. In business, no one dies. There’s no blood or car chases. But it’s a surreal world where thousands of lives are ruined with a stroke of a pen. If you push the ethical limits, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get fired, right? The fact that it’s all a part of business allows you to tolerate some level of moral disconnecting.

Does stretching the truth to keep the customer from walking away create the same kind of moral outrage as when your child looks you in eye and lies about his or her homework? For some reason, in the workplace many people don’t feel they have the same level of ownership and responsibility as they do in their own personal affairs. If you get in the minds of the big fish, moving numbers from one column to another is not really theft. It’s just another business deal with extremely profitable results for the parties involved. White-collar crime was traditionally thought of as a victimless crime…until Enron.

At the core of this big fish versus little fish debate is the fact that the moral ingredients for cooking-up trouble are the same no matter how many dollar signs there are attached. This is character. Character constitutes a life based on principle not circumstance.

The ethical choices you make today are pieces of your character assembling themselves into the kind of person you are and will be. You never know what kind of fish you’ll grow up to be. Those daily little ethical dilemmas in your personal and professional life now prepare you for the big ones to come.

So, listen to the angel. He knows what he’s talking about. Take away the harp and the robe and you’ll find that he’s more fun that you think.