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  • Maryam Kouchaki & Isaac H. Smith

Building an Ethical Career


Most of us think of ourselves as good people. We set out to be ethical, and we hope that in pivotal moments we will rise to the occasion. But when it comes to building an ethical career, good intentions are insufficient. Decades’ worth of research has identified social and psychological processes and biases that cloud people’s moral judgment, leading them to violate their own values and often to create contorted, post hoc justifications for their behavior. So how can you ensure that from day to day and decade to decade you will do the right thing in your professional life?

The first step requires shifting to a mindset we term moral humility—the recognition that we all have the capacity to transgress if we’re not vigilant. Moral humility pushes people to admit that temptations, rationalizations, and situations can lead even the best of us to misbehave, and it encourages them to think of ethics as not only avoiding the bad but also pursuing the good. It helps them see this sort of character development as a lifelong pursuit. We’ve been conducting research on morality and ethics in the workplace for more than a decade, and on the basis of our own and others’ findings, we suggest that people who want to develop ethical careers should consider a three-stage approach: (1) Prepare in advance for moral challenges; (2) make good decisions in the moment; and (3) reflect on and learn from moral successes and failures.

Planning to Be Good

Preparing for ethical challenges is important, because people are often well aware of what they should do when thinking about the future but tend to focus on what they want to do in the present. This tendency to overestimate the virtuousness of our future selves is part of what Ann Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame and colleagues call the ethical mirage.

Counteracting this bias begins with understanding your personal strengths and weaknesses. What are your values? When are you most likely to violate them? In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks distinguishes between résumé virtues (skills, abilities, and accomplishments that you can put on your résumé, such as “increased ROI by 10% on a multimillion-dollar project”) and eulogy virtues (things people praise you for after you’ve died, such as being a loyal friend, kind, and a hard worker). Although the two categories may overlap, résumé virtues often relate to what you’ve done for yourself, whereas eulogy virtues relate to the person you are and what you’ve done for others—that is, your character.

So ask yourself: What eulogy virtues am I trying to develop? Or, as the management guru Peter Drucker asked, “What do you want to be remembered for?” and “What do you want to contribute?” Framing your professional life as a quest for contribution rather than achievement can fundamentally change the way you approach your career. And it’s helpful to consider those questions early, before you develop mindsets, habits, and routines that are resistant to change.

Goal setting can also lay the groundwork for ethical behavior. Professionals regularly set targets for many aspects of their work and personal lives, yet few think to approach ethics in this way. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in his autobiography about trying to master 13 traits he identified as essential for a virtuous life (including industry, justice, and humility). He even created a chart to track his daily progress. We don’t suggest that everyone engage in similarly rigid documentation, but we do suggest that you sit down and write out eulogy-virtue goals that are challenging but attainable. That is similar to what Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School advocated in his HBR article “How Will You Measure Your Life?” After battling cancer, Christensen decided that the metric that mattered most to him was “the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.”

Even the most carefully constructed goals, however, are still just good intentions. They must be fortified by personal safeguards—that is, habits and tendencies that have been shown to bring out people’s better angels. For instance, studies suggest that quality sleep, personal prayer (for the religious), and mindfulness can help people manage and strengthen their self-control and resist temptation at work.

We also recommend “if-then planning”—what the psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls implementation intentions. Dozens of research studies have shown that this practice (“If X happens, then I will do Y”) can be effective in changing people’s behavior, especially when such plans are voiced aloud. They can be simple but must also be specific, tying a situational cue (a trigger) to a desired behavior. For example: If my boss asks me to do something potentially unethical, then I will turn to a friend or a mentor outside the organization for advice before acting. If I am solicited for a bribe, then I will consult my company’s legal team and formal policies for guidance. If I witness sexual harassment or racial prejudice, then I will immediately stand up for the victim. Making if-then plans tailored to your strengths, weaknesses, values, and circumstances can help protect you against lapses in self-control, or inaction when action is required. But be sure to make your if-then plans before you encounter the situation—preparation is key.

Mentors, too, can help you avoid ethical missteps. When expanding your professional network and developing relationships with advisers, don’t look only for those who can hasten your climb up the career ladder; also consider who might be able to support you when it comes to moral decisions. Build connections with people inside and outside your organization whose values are similar to yours and whom you can ask for ethics-related advice. Both of us have reached out to mentors for advice on ethical issues, and we teach our MBA students to do the same. Having a supportive network—and particularly a trusted ethical mentor—may also bring you opportunities to make a positive impact in your career.

Once you’ve made a commitment to living an ethical life, don’t be shy about letting people know it. No one likes a holier-than-thou attitude, but subtle moral signaling can be helpful, particularly when it’s directed at colleagues. You can do this by openly discussing potential moral challenges and how you would want to react or by building a reputation for doing things the right way. For example, in a study one of us (Maryam) conducted, participants were much less likely to ask an online partner to engage in unethical behavior after receiving an email from that partner with a virtuous quotation in the signature line (such as “Success without honor is worse than fraud”).

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