Situational ethics can seduce you in various ways. It can tug on your heartstrings and temporarily let right-versus-wrong decisions masquerade as right-versus-right decisions. Such ethical dilemmas, if left unchecked, can lead down a slippery slope of continuous rationalizations that deteriorate into illegal behavior.
Take for example the consultant, who in a letter offers to bring you a competitor’s technology and formulations and tells you “I will not transfer this information in writing, so it can never be proved that this information is coming from me.” Seriously, someone put that in writing.
Or how about this note written by a star employee:
I’m really sorry about your getting drawn into my divorce mess. . . . She got my cars, house, and even forged my tax return check. When I went to get my belongings she had burned my clothes and was using my favorite 3-iron for a fireplace poker.
I know her lawyer subpoenaed you for my income records so my wife can try to s***w me for more money. What do you have to give them?
Do you have to let them know about the bonus money since that is paid out on a monthly basis? What about my car? Since you gave me the car can that be left out and just kept between you and me? Please let me know what you can do to help me. I don’t want you to lie for me but if you can just give them my base salary information and leave out the bonuses, car, and the trips that would really help me.
What do you do?
To outsiders who don’t know these people and aren’t involved with the transactions the answer to these inviting requests is an obvious “no.” But when you know the person well, they’re good performers and you see their pain, it’s only human nature to want to help out.
Without strong leadership it’s easy to get swept up in the vortex of self serving reasoning. It’s easy to allow the circumstances to justify bending the rules. Besides, who will ever know?
Unfortunately, the lapse in judgment will inevitably come to light during the pretrial discovery phase of the case, or during trial. Those who are unfamiliar with the discovery phase of litigation in the United States often underestimate the depth and breadth of the process. Someone will find out. That someone might even be a reporter.
Further down the slippery slope of situational ethics, when bad behavior reaches a level that offends traditional notions of fairness and justice, it can also lead to more serious consequences in the form of Congressional hearings and more long term consequences in the form of new laws and regulations. At that point, everybody knows your business.
The problem with the slippery slope of situational ethics is that once an organization starts to slide, it’s hard to stop.