It was my first job out of school and one of my first business trips … A colleague, Billie, took me under her wing to “show me the ropes” at a big convention. As she gathered abandoned food receipts off random tables to pad her expense report and flirted with every male employee in the convention center to get what she needed, I wondered if this was normal. Should I follow suit? Should I tell her I thought what she was doing was wrong? It was wrong, wasn’t it? Should I tell my boss? Maybe my boss already knew and she was testing me? Did I want to work here?
While a few extra dollars to one employee’s expense report don’t (and probably shouldn’t) make the news, stories about huge business ethics issues pepper the media … and have been doing so for what seems like forever. From environmental hazard cover-ups of Erin Brockovich fame and Flint, Michigan’s lead-filled water, to the financial scandals of Ponzi schemes, tax fraud and fake bank accounts, ethics in business seem continually stretched.
Our imaginations take hold as we envision the covert meetings it might take to pull off these unethical maneuvers. But it’s important to consider that ethics breaches can occur at any level and often start out small.
Guarding your integrity as a businessperson takes ongoing effort, suggests Red Clark, President of Metalforming Controls, for Forbes.com. “When I find myself off track, it is rarely because I made a conscious decision to do something dishonest or marginally honest. Rather, it has been caused by a series of snap decisions made on the spur of the moment that gradually move you in the wrong direction.”
Professional ethics covers attitudes and behaviors. According to cleverism.com, it covers how you do your job, the respect you show co-workers, bosses and anyone you come in contact with. It includes honesty, integrity, humility and accountability.
Seemingly minor things like habitually showing up late to work, taking credit for someone else’s work, using company time to catch up on your personal social media or showing a consistent lack of respect for someone’s time or effort clearly aren’t crimes. There’s no law against fudging a little and calling in sick when you really just want to sleep in.
But still, ethics matter. Your ethics define you. People see you based on the way you approach certain situations.
What did I do in the situation with Billie? As any bold 23-year-old would do, I made the decision to do nothing. I didn’t follow her example. I didn’t report her. I distanced myself and she was dismissed about three months later. Coincidentally (or not), the company also switched to a per diem system for travel expenses.
My experience with Billie did teach me the ropes—just not the ones she had planned. Despite what seemed to be her best intentions of showing me how the business world worked, I immediately didn’t trust her. Her nonchalance in reporting her expenses made me question her integrity. It made her seem dishonest.
Don’t underestimate the power your professional ethics have on the impression you make on those around you.