Ethics and Trust at Work

Even if you can do it, should you?

Posted May 19, 2017

As 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked, "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do." When it comes to building trust at work, avoiding wrongdoing is not the same as doing right.

Effective leaders who build trust understand there is a difference between something legal and something ethical, something in compliance and something fair, something one turns a blind eye to, and something one is compelled to address.

Workplace leaders who operate with a rules-based approach delineating what can and can't be done as an attempt to "legislate" morality and ethics miss the deeper connect between trust and accountability. It's not what you technically can do that matters to those you lead, it's what you should do—what's right to do.

PublicDomainImagesArchive-free stock photo
Source: PublicDomainImagesArchive-free stock photo

Here are two leaders who modeled that difference:

  1. An executive flew from her New York office to Chicago to personally inform staff about their branch closing. Her action demonstrated a depth of character and valuing others, not just to those affected by her decision, but also to those unscathed in other parts of the company.
  2. Unable to give raises to staff for two years, a Director negotiated away his own bonus, asking that it be divided among his team.

These two leaders could have done other things, but chose to do what was, for them, the right thing. It's hard not to trust people who operate that way. Leaders who operate with high ethics and behavioral integrity (word-action alignment) consider the impact of their actions and its consistency with their character and values.

While we don't hear about people like these as often as those who text the layoff message or cut everyone's salary but their own, the reality is, both types exist and have profound impact on the work culture. Their actions, just as yours do, have trust consequences—positive and negative.

Ethics impacts trust levels. So, even if you can do it, should you? A few questions every leader should consider:

  • If what you're about to do became public, say via YouTube, would you be proud of it? Would you still do it if everyone would know?
  • Would anything your coworkers or stakeholders see or hear as a direct result of your action-decision cause them to reduce their trust in you?
  • If your son or daughter, or significant other, knew the decision you were about to make or what you were about to do, would he or she approve?
  • If your boss or other leaders made the same decision you're planning to make, would you be okay with that?
  • Would it be fine if everyone at work did what you're going to do?
  • If you walked out of the room and had to personally abide by the decision you made, would you still make it?

One thing is certain: How people judge your actions and assess your character and ethics gets assimilated into your work-group's culture, impacting their decision to give or withhold their trust.

Research confirms we elevate other's behavior when we elevate our own. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Plus what you don't do can be as memorable to others as what you do. In the realm of building trust, it's good to remember that our quiet compliance alters perceptions about behavioral integrity and ethics, too.

More tips about how to create and operate with trust at work:

You'll find more tips and how-tos in my book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation