There's No Right Way
to Do a Wrong Thing
By Thom Tschetter
Ways to take out the 'gray areas' in ethical situations.
When I was asked to write an article about ethics, I was honored at first. Then I became terrified. I thought to myself, "What qualifies me to take on this subject?" Sure, I've always tried to do what's right, but don't most people?
The fact that you're reading this article means you want to do things the right way. So the first thing I want to do is thank you for taking the time to read what I've written. Please know that it's not my intention to write from a position of judgment, but only to share some of my personal thoughts - along with those of some people far wiser than me - knowing that we all struggle with similar ethical challenges and occasional failures that result when humans are being human.
It's been said that ethics is the foundation for personal fulfillment and success in the business of life. Ethics is the moral compass that guides our daily decisions. I've enjoyed reading T.J. Reilly's column, "What Would You Do?" Thanks to all of you who have so openly shared your experiences. My father used to say, "Smart people learn from their own mistakes, but wise people learn from other peoples' mistakes." All who contributed to T.J.'s column have helped make us wiser.
At one time or another, we've all heard somebody say that black-and-white decisions are easy ... it's the gray-area decisions that are hard to make. Before you buy into that theory, consider this story.
One day, a young business owner picked up the restaurant check after a family dinner, saying: "Hey, somebody ask me something about business so I can write this off as a business expense." His dad confronted him, saying that since this was clearly a family meal, it wouldn't be honest to claim it as a tax deduction. The business owner just laughed and said, "Everybody does it ... it's no big deal." At that moment, the business owner's 9-year-old son chimed in. "Grampa, you don't understand," he said. "Daddy doesn't have to be honest; he's a businessman."
Talk about a wake-up call! Imagine how the businessman felt. I know exactly how he felt ... it was me!
In retrospect, the thing that troubles me most about this story is that this wasn't even in the gray area ... it was technically illegal; how much more black and white could it be? It was clearly wrong. Yet, I was rationalizing and justifying it as "no big deal" because "everybody does it." The problem with justifying and rationalizing is that we often try to make black-and-white decisions gray when they really aren't. As the title of this article says, "There's no right way to do a wrong thing."
But what about those situations that truly do fall into the gray area - those times when there is no clear black or white? Decisions that are clearly right or wrong only test our honesty and integrity, but making good gray-area decisions builds character. However, avoiding gray-area decisions does the opposite ... it fosters a non-caring, no-conscience, thick-skinned attitude of indifference.
How do we do a better job when we find ourselves in the gray area? Wouldn't it be nice if there were some way to shrink the gray area, revealing more of the black or white? Norman Vincent Peale and Ken Blanchard thought that it was important enough to dedicate an entire chapter to it in their book, The Power of Ethical Management. They refer to it as an "Ethics Check."
Rather than charging ahead without thinking and then rationalizing or justifying your behavior after the fact, the "Ethics Check" will help illuminate the facts and help you sort out the right actions from the wrong. Ask yourself these questions to help take the "grayness" out of questionable situations.
1. "Is it legal?" Consider both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. In other words, is it in alignment with the driving force behind the law in the first place?
2. "Is it balanced?" Is what you're considering going to be a win-win? True win-wins are not easily achieved and sometimes won't be perfect, but lopsided "win-lose" situations often will eventually become "lose-lose" propositions.
3. "How will this make me feel about myself?" If all the facts of the situation and your decision were to be accurately and completely published in the newspaper, would I feel good about it?
4. "Do you feel the need to explain, defend, justify or rationalize your decision?" This normally would indicate that you're not quite there, yet.
Hopefully, you can resolve the situation with your intellect, but your gut instincts can help, too. If you're still struggling, "flip a coin." No, I'm not joking, but follow these rules. Before you flip the coin, assign a value to the head and the tail. For example, if it's a head, I'll do choice A, but if it's a tail, do choice B. Now this is where you really have to be sensitive and honest with yourself. Flip the coin into the air and while it's still in the air, listen to your inner voice and be sensitive to the feeling in your gut. Which way does your gut want the coin to land? Psychologists believe that while the coin is in the air, your subconscious mind will actually weigh all the facts and instantly tell you the right thing to do.
As leaders of your businesses, your families, and in your communities, you need to set an example. As Bob Noyce, inventor of the microprocessor and founder of Intel, said: "If ethics are poor at the top, that behavior is copied down through the organization." Don't just speak of values and ethics; walk your talk and set the standard.
The owner of our company believes so strongly that ethics is the foundation of a great business that he has adopted a very simple mission statement. It serves as the alignment tool for him and the entire team to use for every decision and action we contemplate.
It also sends a clear message to everyone - customers, suppliers, community and employees as to the kind of company we are.
"We do the right things, for the right reasons ... even when nobody is looking."
Ethical behavior is contagious, and people who have experienced being treated ethically find power and satisfaction in treating others with the same regard. For example, since adopting this mission statement, we have teamed up with other Arizona shops to start a non-profit foundation. The foundation's website, AutoRepairGood Guys.com, provides information to help motorists with car repair decisions and guidance to locate ethical repair shops throughout the state. We also raise money to fix cars for families that are facing financial hardships, and help pay for deserving individuals to go to auto vo-tech programs.
Doing the right things for the right reasons has its rewards. Financially, the business is flourishing and has grown every year including these recent years of recession, and the psychic income (the good feelings) that comes with giving back to the community are, as MasterCard says, priceless.
Editor's note: This article is one of several management articles that are being contributed to AutoInc. this year by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. To learn more about AMI, its courses and instructors, visit www.AMIonline.org.
Thom Tschetter is an AMI instructor and consultant. He owned a chain of award-winning auto centers in the state of Washington for more than 25 years. In 1996, his business was honored as the No. 1 small business in the state and ranked in the top 10 nationally. Tschetter is currently the marketing director for Tri-City Transmission in Tempe, Ariz. He also serves on the board of directors for the Auto Repair Good Guys Foundation, a non-profit foundation, which provides consumer education and guidance, charitable car repairs and scholarships to automotive vo-techs within Arizona. He can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (480) 773-3131.
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