Lessons of an Ethics Writer

Last Updated Jun 17, 2008 11:48 AM EDT

A year-and-a-half ago, when I was asked to write this ethics blog, I wrote out a short introductory post. So today, my last day writing this blog, I took a quick look at it.

Everything you need to survive in today's business world you probably learned in the schoolyard. How to choose your fights; when to stand up to the big kids; when to just take your ball and go home.

I've learned a lot in these past 18 months. But looking at that first post, I realize that while my ethics have sharpened from writing about them almost every day, my core beliefs remain the same. Everything you need to survive in the ethical minefield of business is schoolyard stuff, the things you learned back when you were learning how to navigate through the "rights" and "wrongs" of this world. The playground is bigger, but the rules are the same.

My favorite part of writing this blog was finding those ethics dilemmas that have no clear right or wrong answer, and posing them to you. Because in these uncomfortable spaces, learning occurs. We teach ourselves.

I'm not one to sit down and write out "rules to live by" or "top 10 maxims" or whatever it is that they display in Powerpoints at seminars. But within these tricky dilemmas, there are things I learned myself, things that sprang up again and again in my mind as I weighed a situation, and I will share them here:

  • Profit never outweighs wrong.
  • The solution to a tricky ethical dilemma is often to just say "no."
  • The best way to deal with a bad idea it to come up with a better one.
  • If your gut tells you something is wrong, it probably is. Listen to your instincts.
  • There are some work environments that you can't fix, so dust off your resume.
  • You can't blame anyone else if you get caught up in ethically questionable behavior. There are no victims when "no" is available.
  • Tolerating poor ethical behavior is just as bad as doing it yourself.
  • The ethical character of an organization is dictated from the top down. Establish an environment where employees know that cutting corners will not be tolerated, and they won't.
  • Your own ethical character is tied in with the companies you do business with. Not all clients are good clients.
  • You are a citizen of humanity. Selfish goals cannot outweigh the greater good.
  • Writing down a code of conduct is a good thing. Establishing it by example is even better.
  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.