Ethical Pitfalls—You Will Be Tested Pitfalls—You Will Be Tested

No matter where you work or live, when it comes to ethics one thing is clear: you will be tested. Ethical pitfalls are all around us.

Often you stumble upon them suddenly. Your ethics are tested most when you are under duress (with stress, pressure, or fear). Here is a partial list of what you’re up against:


If you work in the world of business…

  1. Are you under pressure to withhold damaging information?
  2. Lowballing estimates in order to increase the chances of getting an order?
  3. “Cooking the books” to deceive analysts or investors?
  4. Paying bribes in markets where that is common or expected, reasoning that you must “pay to play”?
  5. Pulling sales from the next quarter to meet your targets for this one?
  6. Posing as a customer or partner to glean intelligence from a competitor?
  7. Downplaying the risks of products to gain regulatory approval?
  8. Failing to manage your environmental impacts or work force responsibly?
  9. “Greenwashing” to appear better in terms of CSR and sustainability?
  10.  Abusing people or placing unreasonable demands on your team?
  11.  Lawyering up to avoid accepting responsibility for violations?
  12.  Stealing office supplies?


If you work in the world of consulting, law, or accountancy…

  1. Are you overbilling or double-billing?
  2. Do you have conflicts of interest with certain clients?
  3. Are you suppressing damaging information?
  4. Do you put up with an abusive or unethical rainmaker?


If you are an entrepreneur or work for a startup…

  1. Are you inflating revenue forecasts in order to increase the chances of raising venture funding?
  2. Withholding bad news or big changes before a deal closes to avoid blowing it?
  3. Engaging in nepotism or favoritism?


If you are a student…

  1. Are you cheating on exams?
  2. Plagiarizing on papers?
  3. Signing attendance sheets for peers when they miss class?
  4. Padding your resume or fabricating work experience to increase the chances of getting hired?


If you’re a researcher…

  1. Are you hiding data that contradicts your hypothesis?
  2. Otherwise manipulating the experiment or results?


If you’re an athlete…

  1. Are you using performance-enhancing drugs because you feel you need to in order to compete?
  2. Are you cheating to win?


For anyone and everyone…

  1. Are you cheating on your taxes?
  2. Letting others take the blame for something you did?
  3. Taking credit for something others did?
  4. Allowing misconceptions to continue because they work in your favor?
  5. Downloading copyrighted digital files such as books, movies, or music without authorization or payment?
  6. Taking advantage of or manipulating or abusing people?
  7. Otherwise engaging in various forms of deception, theft, or harm?

None of us is perfect. We all fall short sometimes. The question is how we get better and avoid those mistakes in the future. What process do we use? Who do we look to for help?


Rationalizations for Unethical Behavior

Unfortunately, our brains work against us in many ways. The rationalizations for unethical behavior are legion:

  1. “That’s just the way the world works/business is business.”
  2. “You’ve got to pay to play in this market.”
  3. “When in Rome (Bangkok, Beijing, Chicago, Moscow, etc.)…”
  4. “My boss told me to do it, so my hands were tied.”
  5. “Everybody else is doing it so…”
  6. “It’s just this once.”
  7. “Nobody will get hurt.”
  8. “No one will find out.”
  9. “We really need this/deserve this.”
  10. “I tried to say something in the meeting…” (sort of)
  11. “I did this and this wrong, but I drew the line at not doing that.”
  12. “It was for a good cause so…”

With these rationalizations, we try to explain things away and ease the burden of a heavy conscience.

Over time, bad decisions and behaviors accumulate and take us into dangerous territory.

We need tripwires that short-circuit our brains as they rationalize, and processes for pulling us back from the brink. (More on that in a future blog.)

What ethical commitments have you made, and what is your process for keeping them?


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Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, trainers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards, and called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great.” Take their Leadership Derailers Assessment or sign up for their newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Pitfalls—You Will Be Tested