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CIO ethics check: 5 moral pitfalls to avoid


Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm.


A business leader—be it a sage senior executive or a newly appointed junior manager—will at some point face a temptation that tests the limits of his or her ethics. Through the years, I’ve witnessed dozens of people who, due to momentary weakness, compromised their ethics or morals; as a result, they torpedoed their careers, seriously damaged or destroyed their company and, in one case, ended up in prison. As Bill Watterson’s Hobbes once lamented in the beloved Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, "I don't know which is worse, that everyone has his price, or that the price is always so low."


Part of my standard morning routine for years has been to read The Wall Street Journal. It seems that rarely a day passes that I don’t find a story describing a massive fine paid by a well-known corporation or the sad tale of an executive who has resigned as a result of some type of moral lapse. No one gets out of bed in the morning and thinks, “Today I will destroy my company’s reputation,” or “I think I will ruin my life today.” No one plans to do either of these but, sadly, many do. What happens and how can you guard against falling into the trap that ensnares so many? I firmly believe that the only way to avoid trouble is to recognize it when you see it and then run the other way.


Several years ago a friend of mine purchased one of those large motor homes to drive to football games on the weekends. I was with him once when he was emptying the holding tank for the septic system into a drain at a campsite specifically made for this purpose. “There’s no way to do this without getting a little sewage (he used a more graphic term!) on your hands and just a drop stinks for the rest of the day.” Flirting with these five temptations works the same way. There is no way that you can avoid getting a little of the bad stuff on you and, once you have done so, it can stink up things for a long time to come.


Here are my five ethical temptations and a few hints for how to run the other way.



The most famous line from the 1987 movie Wall Street is Gordon Gekko’s proclamation, "Greed is good! Greed is right! Greed works! Greed will save the USA!" Sadly, a lot of folks actually believe this. One has to look no further than the financial scandals of the past few years for proof. Later in the movie, the character Lou Mannheim, played wonderfully by Hal Holbrook, tells Gekko’s young protégé Bud Fox, “The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do.” The Bible tells says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Once you fall in love with money, wealth can become an insatiable addiction. When you don’t have money, you falsely believe that money will solve all of your problems. As you acquire wealth, it seems that, no matter how much you have, it is never quite enough. John D. Rockefeller once was asked, "How much money is enough money?" His reply: "Just a little bit more." That is the problem.


The only way to guard against the temptations of greed is to learn to put money in its proper perspective. One thing I have learned is that money can make you comfortable, but it will not make you happy. To become a slave to money is to make a Faustian deal. Like Dr. Faust who sold his soul to the Devil for knowledge and worldly pleasures, making ethical compromises in exchange for riches is a deal you never win in the end. There are a lot of smart people in prison today who compromised their values for “just a little bit more.”



Pride is a word that carries two very different meanings. We commonly associate pride with a satisfied sense of attachment toward one's own or another's choices and actions. If I tell one of my sons that I am proud of him (which I regularly do), it means that I take great satisfaction in the good choices he has made or in the way he conducts his life. The other, negative, form of pride refers to an inflated sense of one's personal status or accomplishments, often used synonymously with hubris. It frequently manifests itself as arrogance.


One of the hallmarks of pride is the tendency to constantly compare oneself with others and to feel angry if the comparison results in the other person looking better than you. These comparisons may be in regard to status, position, wealth (see greed above) or any of a number of traits. The response may be to do “whatever it takes” to improve your perceived status, including taking ethical shortcuts in order to get ahead or to look better in both your own eyes and in the eyes of others. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. ... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” We all know folks like this. Lewis also wrote, “The first step in acquiring humility (the opposite of pride) is to realize that you are proud. Until you realize this, nothing can be done about it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”


Like any vice, the first step toward recovery is to admit that you gave a problem. Recognizing the symptoms of pride in your own actions and thoughts is the first step. Pay attention to these thoughts and learn to check your emotions before reacting to them. Pride can lead to a sense of entitlement. It is this sense of entitlement that leads people to believe that they deserve more than they are getting and to taking matters into their own hands to correct the perceived injustice. The abuse of corporate perks and company resources for personal enjoyment or gain is usually the result of a belief that one is entitled to more than they are getting.



In utilitarianism, the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome. Jeremy Bentham who, along with John Stuart Mill, was one of the most influential thinkers on this subject said, "It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number, that is the measure of right and wrong.” Sometimes phrases such as “the greatest good for the greatest number” are used when expressing a utilitarian ideal.


In one of the classes I teach, students are required to take a training program at the beginning of the semester on good research practices involving human subjects. A key component of this program is understanding the practice of obtaining informed consent from research subjects. A case study, based on an actual event, is used to help students grasp the concept and its application. In the case, researchers have obtained blood samples from an isolated tribe in South America for the purpose of a genetic experiment. The tribal leaders, who speak for the population in their culture, have given their consent for a specific experiment. Later, another scientist discovers that these samples might hold promise in finding a cure for a rare genetic disease; however, in order to use the samples for a different use than that for which they were originally collected, they are legally required to obtain informed consent from the tribal elders for this new study. For reasons of local culture and religion, the elders refuse. The students are asked what they would do. A frightening number always suggest simply ignoring the law and doing the research anyway, without the legally required informed consent. Their rational is that it is better to ignore the rights of a few for the potential benefit of many. Pure utilitarianism! When I point out that their rationale is the same reasoning used to justify the horrific medical experiments conducted by Josef Mengele on inmates at Auschwitz or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, they are initially shocked. After I explain the similarities in their reasoning, most quickly see the problem with their decision.


Utilitarianism is an easy trap to fall into. Many violations of laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act have their origins in utilitarian reasoning.



The human mind has an amazing ability to rationalize almost any behavior. How many times have you “talked yourself into” doing something you later regretted? In fact, most utilitarian decisions have their origin in rationalization.


To avoid rationalizing an unethical decision, I suggest that you apply a set of criteria to any and all decisions that fall into an ethically grey area. See my post “Seven Questions for Examining the Ethics of a Business Decision” for some guidelines that I have found useful.



Finally, apathy is the temptation to be intellectually lazy. You may be tired, burned out, frustrated or disengaged for any number of reasons. This is always a bad place to find yourself, but it is especially dangerous in situations where decisions with ethical implications need to be made or approved. The temptation is to simply go along and get along rather than challenging assumptions and raising the questions and concerns that need to be addressed. I have personally made this mistake. Trying to defend your actions, or lack thereof, afterward is usually impossible, humiliating and embarrassing.


If you are not in the game mentally, don’t try to play. Get help, change your surroundings, whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. The first step is recognizing your problem, the second is doing something about it and the third is don’t mentally check out when your wisdom and leadership are needed most.


Mark Twain once said, “Always do right—this will gratify some and astonish the rest.” Avoid these temptations and you will astonish others instead of embarrassing yourself, harming others and possibly ruining your career.


Related links: lesson learned: Know what you don’t know

Seven Questions for Examining the Ethics of a Business Decision

Coach your employees to greatness


Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business. Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Enterprise CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.

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