Why acting ethically is so difficult

“So you knew the right thing to do, yet you failed to act. Why was that?”
“I was afraid I’d lose my job.”

I’ve had the above conversation dozens of times, and it’s always frustrated and confused me. Why would you want to keep a job which forces you to behave contrary to your beliefs? Even worse, in most of these situations, the risk of losing the job is only in the mind of the person who’s afraid to ask. So where does this horrible fear come from?

Juliet Schor, a sociology researcher at Boston College, claims that between 1969 and 2000, labor productivity per hour increased about 80%. Did we use that productivity gain to work fewer hours? No, we’re instead working longer hours, and buying houses that are 50% larger, buying expensive cars and consuming at an aggressive rate. Americans get fewer vacation days than other developed countries, yet most Americans don’t use them, and increasing numbers of those who do bring their laptops and Blackberries with them. Americans are overworked and stressed, and at the end of the day, they’re too tired to do anything but watch television and shop.

All that shopping, all that consumption, leads to ever-increasing debt loads. We take for granted that we need a bigger car, a bigger house, an updated kitchen, more stuff.
We never stop to think that perhaps we have enough. So our savings rate as a nation continues to decline, and families have less and less of a cushion for when things go wrong.

Things like… losing my job.

So working longer hours leads to spending more, which leads to greater fear of losing my job. While I’ve looked at this issue as a purely economic one, and an individual choice (and individual loss), the answer is much more insidious, much more damaging to our culture, our companies and our society. Living to the end of my income makes me a less responsible employee, a less accountable manager, someone who looks the other way rather than standing up for what I believe in. We’re not just causing our own families stress with poor financial behavior. We’re hurting our companies, our teams, our shareholders and our partners by looking the other way when wrongdoing occurs.

It’s time to stop saying, “I wish I could have done something,” and take responsibility, even if it means potentially losing our jobs. If a company would fire someone for uncovering unethical or illegal behavior, think of what working for a company like that can do to your heart, to your love of your work, and to the quality of the work you are going to produce.

The solution is moving away from short-term, reactionary behavior, in order to have the flexibility to act according to your own ethical guidelines. Long-term planning and thinking helps both your career and your organization. Do you have three to six months’ pay saved up in case you lose your job? If not, you risk compromising what you believe in.


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