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Invoke Employee Loyalty

January 1, 1998
Related Topics: Ethics, Featured Article
Recently I spoke to a group of 400 managers, administrators and trustees of the National Council on Teacher Retirement. At the end of my presentation I explained how many times we rationalize our unethical choices by deciding we’re making these choices for our families’ benefit. "What if," I asked the audience, "you were to go home and tell your family members that you’ve chosen to do the wrong thing because of them? How would they feel?"

After my talk I was packing quickly to catch a train. A gentleman stopped me. "Have you got a minute?" he asked. "That story you told about bringing the decision home to your family-that happened to me." I put my bags down.

"It was in the ’30s, during the Depression, and my father didn’t have regular work," the man began. "He had a reputation for being a man of great integrity. He didn’t drink—both he my mother came from families opposed to drinking on religious principle. Even though he knew this, the owner of a local bar offered him a job as a bartender. The owner couldn’t find anyone who could keep his hands out of the till. He knew my father to be rigorously honest and offered him $35 a week to do the job.

"Interested in anything that could help his family financially, my father considered the offer," the man continued. "But he was troubled. So he brought the offer to us, his family. He explained that although this was a good opportunity to make money, it would mean doing something that he was morally opposed to. He wanted our advice. Should he take the job or not? My brother, who was seven and two years older than me, asked, ‘Will Grandpa know?’ ‘No,’ my father said. ‘He lives hundreds of miles away.’ Then he asked, ‘Will God know?’ My father scratched his chin. ‘I don’t think I’m going to take that job,’ he replied."

Whether you agree or disagree that drinking is immoral isn’t the point. This man saw, by his father’s own actions, that it’s more important for a person to stand by his or her principles than to achieve financial gain—even if it’s for the benefit of his or her family.

Sometimes loyalty challenges other values.
I believe there are eight core ethical values: loyalty, honesty, fairness, caring, respect, tolerance, duty and moral courage. People should use these principles as ground rules for behavior when dealing with people—family, friends, co-workers, supervisors.

One challenge, however, is that sometimes we must choose between loyalty to our families or employers and our commitment to the other core values, such as honesty or fairness. Loyalty means remaining faithful to obligations to family, friends, co-workers and employers. But it also means maintaining a commitment to the other seven principles. Given this commitment, no one has the right to ask another to compromise his or her principles in the name of loyalty.

Although the owner of the bar didn’t pressure the man’s father to take the job out of a sense of personal loyalty, often managers do place this kind of pressure on employees. Consider this example: A supervisor makes an employee feel she has an obligation to misrepresent a time line to another employee or a product to a prospective client in order to meet a production deadline or sales goal. To further complicate the dilemma, the employee may feel that disappointing her supervisor could lead to termination. And if she were to lose her job, she would be letting down her family, the people toward whom she feels the greatest loyalty. Her conclusion could be: Cheating isn’t right, but it’s better than being disloyal to one’s boss and family.

It sounds unlikely, but it really happens.
According to a 1997 survey sponsored by the Belmont, Massachusetts-based Ethics Officer Association of a 1,324-person cross section of the working population nationwide, 48 percent admitted to an unethical or illegal act during the last year. Among the top unethical acts committed: cutting corners on quality control, withholding important information, lying to or deceiving customers, falsifying numbers or reports, and lying to or deceiving a superior.

Few would argue that loyalty to one’s family is significant, but should it come at the price of ethical principles? Think about how your own family would react if you told them you had to mislead a customer in order to earn a bonus.

Now you need to help your employees put things in the same perspective. Your company’s managers and policies may be doing more to encourage unethical behavior than you realize. But you can change this by establishing ethics as the ground rules of behavior.

How should you do this?
Make clear the importance of ethics in your company. Stress corporate values in communications with customers, vendors and co-workers. Include character considerations in hiring interviews, reviews and promotions. Make ethics a part of continuing education. And teach supervisors to handle their power and influence over subordinates with care, being conscious not to imply that the end always justifies the means.

Encourage employees to do the right thing by being an ethical role model, making clear, consistent, moral choices. Co-workers will judge your own values not by what you say but by what you do. And they will judge the corporate values by what your policies permit them to do. So take a look at your own priorities. Commit to a set of standards you know is right. And show others—through company policies and your own actions—just what you stand for and why.

Workforce, January 1998, Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 121-122.

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