When I was in college, I worked at a women’s clothing boutique. One of the girls I worked with
also had a part-time job at the shoe store down the street and offered everyone at the clothing boutique her employee discount from the shoe store. We were thrilled, until the store owner pointed out that this employee was probably also offering a clothing discount to her shoe-store friends. She was buying friends at the business’s expense. This was an early lesson for me in the slippery slope of ethical compromise.
Everyone has his own ideas where the line is in terms of ethics. If you accidentally lift a pen from a store after signing the receipt, do you take it back? If a to-go order includes an extra meal that you didn’t pay for, do you let them know? Maybe, maybe not. But consider this: as a business person, dealing with a vendor, employee or client who has an overly-flexible ethical standard can be catastrophic. As an HR firm, for example, if we work with clients who are rewriting the employment laws and regulations in their heads to allow for unethical behavior, we could be liable. You can wind up in trouble yourself and, if you deal with someone who is happy to blur the lines in order to get an advantage over someone else, there’s no reason to think that same client, employee or vendor won’t do the same to you.
The insidious thing is, it usually starts small, with something that looks like a favor. “Yeah, this law says we have to provide this coverage for all employees who are eligible for benefits, but if we don’t tell the insurance carrier, neither the employees nor the insurance carrier will ever know.” This little secret might save you hundreds or thousands of dollars on its face but cost you your business if your deception is ever exposed.
Or you might have an employee who can figure out how to save you a few dollars or mask an error you made that could get a client upset with you. That’s the beginning of the slippery slope of ethical compromise.
Most of us know when a true ethical compromise has been presented to us. It makes us feel uncomfortable, we find ourselves justifying our actions to ourselves and looking for situations in which we might be exposed. But once we’ve treated one situation with a wink and a nod, it’s pretty much expected that we’ll treat the next situation the same way, then the next. When we do reach a limit and say no more, we’ve already gotten ourselves in deep enough that extraction is complicated and fraught with emotion and risk. If you’ve partnered in something unethical with someone for awhile, you may now have to fear that they’ll turn their unethical practices against you.
Bottom line is, the only safe approach is to avoid the slippery slope. Integrity is about making who you are fit with what you say and what you do. If you model integrity for your employees, vendors and clients and expect it from them, you’ll have a reputation of being trustworthy. This will make people with stretchy ethics avoid you. In the end, that’s a good thing.
We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.