Peter Drucker, the late management guru, said:  “As to ‘ethical problems’ in business, I have made myself tremendously unpopular by saying, again and again, that there is no such thing as ‘business ethics.’  There is only ethics.”

You can solve most ethical dilemmas by running down this checklist, which I've used successfully for 30 years at my company. It's pretty simple: If the action in question fails any one of these tests, just don't do it.

  • Is it legal?  This is a given, but you'd be surprised how many people don't know local, state and federal laws.  Knowing what's right doesn't mean much unless you do what's right.
  • How will it make you feel about yourself?  Ask yourself how you will feel about yourself if you act or don't act in a given situation.  Abraham Lincoln was once asked about ethics and he quoted an old man he had once heard speak at a church meeting in Indiana.  The old man said, “When I do good, I feel good; and when I do bad, I feel bad.”
  • How do others feel about it?  I have a kitchen cabinet of people whom I can talk to and bounce ideas off.  Two heads are better than one, and three heads are better than two.  These are trusted friends and co-workers.  Get their opinion on a situation.  You want to see all sides.
  • How would you feel if your actions were made public?  No one ever wants to see his or her name linked to anything bad.  Conscience is like a baby. It has to go to sleep before you can.  If you don't want co-workers, family and friends to know about something, then it's a sure bet the action is questionable.
  • Does the behavior make sense?  Will it hurt others?  If you're worried about getting caught at something, it doesn't pass the smell test.
  • Is it fair?  Ethical decisions ensure that everyone's best interests are protected.  When in doubt, don't.
  • Will people in authority approve?  What would your supervisor say?  Get a manager's opinion.  We have an open door policy at MackayMitchell Envelope Company for employees to discuss anything with managers.
  • How would you feel if someone did the same thing to you?  The Golden Rule is always an appropriate standard.
  • Will something negative happen if you don't make a decision?  Sometimes not taking action can result in harm to others.
  • And finally, and most important of all: Would you do this is your mother was watching?

Here's an example to illustrate this final principle:

A mother was invited for dinner at her son Brian’s apartment.  During the course of the meal, Brian’s mother couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Brian’s roommate, Jennifer, was.

Brian‘s mom had long suspected a relationship between Brian and Jennifer.  Over the course of the evening, while watching the two interact, her suspicions only deepened.

Reading his mom’s thoughts, Brian volunteered,

“I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you Jennifer and I are just roommates.”

About a week later, Jennifer came to Brian, saying, “Ever since your mother came to dinner, I’ve been unable to find the beautiful silver gray ladle.  You don’t suppose she took it, do you?”

“Well, I doubt it,” Brian said, “but I’ll send her an e-mail just to be sure.”  So he wrote: 

“Dear Mom: I’m not saying that you ‘did’ take the gravy ladle from the house, and I’m not saying that you ‘did not’ take the gravy ladle. But the fact remains that one has been missing ever since you were here for dinner.  Love, Brian.”

Several days later, Brian received an e-mail back from his mother.  “Dear Son: I’m not saying that you ‘do’ sleep with Jennifer, and I’m not saying that you ‘do not’ sleep with Jennifer.  But the fact remains that if Jennifer had been sleeping in her own bed, she would have found the ladle by now.  Love, Mom.”

Mackay’s Moral:  If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.