Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive! – Sir Walter Scott
That line is one of the most famous quotes from English poetry. Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion, from which the line comes, is about an English Lord (Marmion) who desires a very rich woman (Clara). Unfortunately, Clara is engaged to another man (Sir Ralph). Through an elaborate series of lies told by Lord Marmion and with the aid of his mistress, a dishonest nun (Constance) who is completely smitten with Lord Marmion, Sir Ralph is exiled. Clara is broken-hearted and chooses to go to a convent rather than be with Lord Marmion. Lord Marmion, devastated about losing Clara, turns on his former partner-in-crime Constance and abandons her.
That poem was written in 1806 about an event that occurred in 1513. So, 500 years later, what’s so different? If we lose the “Sir” and “Lord” titles, the men in this poem are just government employees. They are military men serving at the request of King Henry VIII. Is it really so great a stretch to write a current day version of the story?
Think of how many times we hear of ethics breaches in the workplace. Corporate and public-sector scandals are the lead stories most evenings on the 6 o’clock news. More and more companies are designing ethics policies in an attempt to legislate values and morals. It seems to be the trendy new policy to add to the Employee Handbook. While it is important for an organization to have an emphasis on ethics, a culture built around respect might be more effective.
What are ethics anyway? What impacts them? This list is probably endless, but some of the things I’ve come up with are: peer pressure; current circumstances; gender; culture; religion; position; race; who’s watching; geography; power; money; education; status. These factors, and many more, determine and ultimately develop our moral convictions.
Some ethical issues are obvious. All cultures place a value on not inflicting harm and on truth telling. But what about little white lies? What about the lies we tell to protect someone’s feelings? One of my dad’s favorite stories occurred when he was visiting with friends for a few days. On the first morning, his friend, the host, burnt the breakfast toast and was very apologetic. My dad’s response to his friend was, “Oh don’t worry about that. I like my toast that way.” For the remainder of his stay, his friend intentionally burnt the toast—thinking he was accommodating my dad’s preference.
Since ethics are an applied moral code, let’s examine morality. In “Moral Decision-Making—An Analysis,” Chris MacDonald, Ph.D., says, “Morality is a system of rules that modifies our behavior in social situations. It’s about the doing of good instead of harm and it sets some standard of virtuous conduct.” One definition says, “Morals are arbitrarily and subjectively created by society, philosophy, religion and/or individual conscience.” So, we all may have a different and unique sense of what’s right and what’s wrong or at least a distinct variation of it.
Collectively, our ethics are based on the culture that is in place at the time. The early U. S. Constitution declared women ineligible for citizenship. Our constitution writers were responding to, “What is a citizen?” Even when the culture remains constant, but the circumstances are different, right and wrong changes. When is it okay to help yourself to a cookie? If you’re a non-dieting adult, the answer is probably, “whenever you want one.” But if you’re a three-year old and must push a stool over to the counter, climb onto the stool, then heave yourself onto the counter to stretch into the high cabinet to grab the cookie bag, the answer is probably very different.
Some of the current hot buttons with which our society is grappling are centered in our personal interpretation of ethics. For example, what is the definition of marriage and when does life begin? Regardless of where you stand on these issues, the fact that we are discussing them is an indicator of how values change.
Defining a single ethical code or creating a definitive list of morally acceptable behaviors is beyond challenging. It’s nearly an impossible task. Even if attempted, there will always be extenuating circumstances or gray areas.
I recently read, The Power of Nice by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. In this book they tell us, “The surest and quickest way to self respect is behaving in a way that makes you respectable.” Good advice, indeed. And, in this perfect world, workplace ethics policies would not be required and we’d be off to write a different trendy policy. Oh! Wait! We wouldn’t need ANY workplace policies.