When it comes to building an ethical career, good intentions are insufficient. Existing research emphasizes social and psychological processes and biases that hinder people’s moral judgment, leading them to violate their own values and often to create contorted, post hoc justifications for their behaviour. So how can you ensure that from day to day and in the long-term you have the ability to do the right thing in your professional life?
Researchers propose that people that have the desire to develop ethical careers should consider a three-stage approach:
- Prepare in advance for moral challenges: Preparing for ethical challenges is important, because people are often aware of what they should do when thinking about the future but tend to focus on what they want to do in the present. Counteracting this bias begins with understanding your personal strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, we are all shaped more by our environment than we realize, so it's also critical to choose a workplace that will allow if not encourage you to behave ethically. Research also shows that elements of a work environment can enhance or diminish self-control, regardless of cultural norms: high uncertainty, excessive cognitive demands, long days and late nights, and consecutive stretch goals and correlate with increased rates of unethical behavior.
- Make good decisions in the moment: Even if you've planned for an ethical career and established safeguards, it can be difficult to face moral challenges in the moment. Sometimes people overlook the implications of their decisions or they find fanciful ways of rationalizing immoral, self-interested behaviour. Researchers suggest that there are three tests that can help you avoid self-deceptive rationalizations:
- The publicity test - would you be comfortable having this choice, and your reasoning behind it, published on the front page of the local newspaper?
- The generalizability test - would you be comfortable having your decision serve as a precedent for all people facing a similar situation?
- The mirror test - would you like the person you saw in the mirror after making this decision; is that the person you truly want to be?
- Reflect on and learn from moral successes and failures: Learning from experience is an iterative, lifelong pursuit: A lot of growth happens after decisions are made and actions taken. Ethical people are not perfect, but when they make mistakes, they review and reflect on them so that they can do better in the future.
Kouchaki, M. & Smith, I. H. (2020). Building an Ethical Career. Harvard Business Review,98(1),135-139.