Legal Does Not Equal Ethical

Legal and Ethics

You know – MOST people are pretty honest – Again, I say MOST people…

For instance, most leaders act in ways that benefit their organizations and employees. I believe that most of us are driven to behavior that is ethical. But lately, we’ve certainly seen enough people running businesses lately that are acting in quite unethical ways.

We all have an inner voice (not “voices”) telling us when something isn’t right. We might not always listen to it . . . but it’s always there.

As a leader, one of the best things you can do is to listen to your inner voice.

If something’s not right, if your inner voice tells you not to do itl so listen to it. There’s probably a good reason for it. You just don’t know what it is yet.

Ethics: This Way or That

Seriously think of it this way – do you want your 15 minutes of fame because of something you did well or are you willing to settle for 15 minutes of infamy for having lied, cheated, or stolen?

You may think that your unethical behavior is only affecting a few people – or none at all. Have you heard of a little company called Enron? Other people, other companies, other countries, other etc., rely on your good ethics as a leader. Take a look at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies. That business is ENORMOUS.

In the U.S. alone, over 500,000 people work in the fast-food industry, and many thousands of suppliers like farmers, paper cup manufacturers, builders, and so on, depend on it for their livelihood.

Failures of companies like these can have disastrous effects on communities.

Still Small Voice

EthicsSure, it can be very tempting sometimes to take the easy way out, to tell a small lie because no one will be able to prove it or to claim credit for someone else’s work.

But, hello – you’ll always know it was the wrong choice.

Your inner voice will tell you. You can ignore that inner voice, but get the earplugs because it’ll always be there.

When you have good ethics, it makes your life SO much easier.

For instance:

  • You never have to remember your story. If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to worry about what you told who.
  • You’re more effective. When you know you’re doing the right thing, it’s easier for you to get behind it and push to make it successful.
  • You’ll even sleep better. When your inner voice isn’t nagging you, you sleep more soundly.

Having unscrupulous ethics – ignoring your inner voice – there will always be consequences. Maybe not right away, but you’ll see – they’ll come. For example:

  • You WILL be found out. Regardless of how clever you are, or how practiced a liar you become, you WILL slip up.
  • You WILL be less effective. You WILL spend so much time and energy covering your tracks that you’ll get less done.
  • You WON’T like yourself very much. Even if no one else knows, you’ll know.
  • FINES and JAIL.

Guilty is as Guilty Does

In the 1980’s Beech-Nut needed to lower costs to stay out of bankruptcy so they signed on with a low-cost supplier of apple juice concentrate. To make a long story short, that company included additives in the concentrate that Beech-Nut was “not aware of.” NOT.

In 1987, the company pleaded guilty to charges that it had deliberately sold adulterated juice and was fined over $2 million. It’s top managers were also found guilty and were sentenced to prison terms.

Myth Busters

As easy as it may sound to hold a good standard of ethics, there are still some myths around that come from just general confusion.

Myth: Business ethics is more a matter of religion than management.

Diane Kirrane, in “Managing Values: A Systematic Approach to Business Ethics”, states that “altering people’s values or souls isn’t the aim of an organizational ethics program — managing values and conflict among them is …

Myth: Our employees are ethical so we don’t need attention to business ethics.

Kirrane remarks that when the topic of business ethics comes up, people are quick to speak of the “Golden Rule”, honesty and courtesy. But when presented with complex ethical dilemmas, most people realize there’s a wide “gray area” when trying to apply ethical principles.

Myth: Business ethics is unnecessary — it only asserts the obvious: “do good!”

This is sometimes easier said than done. The relentless pursuit of self-interest can lead to a collective disaster when one or more people start to profit from being unethical because this encourages other people to act in the same way. Especially when it begins with “trusted” leaders. Others think they may be doing good because the action is coming from the top.

Myth: Ethics can’t be managed.

Actually, ethics is always “managed” — but, too often, indirectly. For example, the behavior of the organization’s founder or current leader holds a strong moral influence on the behavior of employees. Laws, regulations and rules directly influence behaviors to be more ethical, usually in a manner that improves the general good and/or minimizes harm to the community. But be careful. Neither laws nor ethics are fixed principles. Laws change, over time, to reflect the changing ethical beliefs of society.

So just because something is “legal” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “ethical.”

Think And Grow Ethical

Focus not only on the actual words and provisions of the laws, but also on the probable intentions behind them. Ignorance of a law is NOT an acceptable excuse for breaking it. THINK, THINK, THINK!

Many people try to rationalize potentially unethical actions. But I tell ya – that’s the quickest way to head yourself down the wrong path. Avoid, at all costs, the following “rationalizations”:

  • “Everyone else does it”
  • “They’ll never miss it”
  • “Nobody will care”
  • “The boss does it”
  • “No one will know”
  • “I don’t have time to do it right”
  • “That’s close enough”
  • “Some rules were meant to be broken”
  • “It’s not my job”

When in doubt about something you’re ready to act on, Harvey and Airitam’s Ethics 4 Everyone, suggests you ask yourself the following eight questions:

  • Is it legal?
  • Does it comply with our rules and guidelines?
  • Is it in sync with our organizational values?
  • Will I be comfortable and guilt-free if I do it?
  • Does it match our stated commitments and guarantees?
  • Would I do it to my family or friends?
  • Would I be perfectly okay with someone doing it to me?
  • Would the most ethical person I know do it?

The “secret” to being successful – and respected – is to realize the importance of ethical behavior AND acting that way – regardless of how others act. You control yourself. If you’re being put in a position where you feel pressured to act unethically and your company’s top leaders consistently endorse those principles – it’s time to move on. You’re more important!

Andy Uskavitch is Leadership Development at Florida Blood Services
He develops and facilitates Leadership, Motivation & Teambuilding Seminars
EmailLinkedInFacebookTwitterBlog | (727) 568-5433

Image Sources:,

For more information about ethics, check out the following organizations.

Ethics Resource Center | Business Ethics, The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility | Ethics and Compliance Officer Association

One response to “Legal Does Not Equal Ethical

  1. Thanks for the great post. I’ve been part of a couple start-ups in my recent career and I can tell you the moral fiber of the corporate leadership truly permeates an organization – one who walks the tightrope often asks others to join them there. Thanks for the great post! Do you have advice for employees (not leaders) who find themselves witness to unethical, but legal behavior?


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