Philosopher Aldo Leopold said: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”
Ethical dilemmas occur when we find ourselves in a situation or circumstance that conflicts with our personal values. These situations are a predictable and normal part of life at work, and so we should not be surprised or shocked when we confront them. Instead we should prepare to confront the type of ethical dilemmas (or questionable practices) that are most common in our professions.
We also need to be able to anticipate how others will respond to dilemmas. Commonplace responses, or rationalizations, could be: “Everybody else is doing it so it must be okay,” or, “If we don’t do it, somebody else will,” or, “That’s the way they are doing it at firm X, Y, or Z.”
And we have to develop and practice our own responses: Who should we talk to? What should we say? How should we say it? What policies and procedures are in place?
In summary, knowing the right thing to do, and doing the right thing can be completely different. However, preparation, anticipation, and practice can enable professionals to manage external pressures from bosses, colleagues, and clients, and hopefully provide the confidence to voice and act on their values.
Michael G. McMillan, PhD, CPA, CFA is Director, Ethics Education at CFA Institute. Dr. McMillan will be leading a workshop at CNE as part of Finance Academy entitled, “Ethics in Financial Decision Making for Nonprofits.”