Business ethics and your responsible career management strategy

When it comes to responsible career management, doing the right thing over doing the easy thing is tantamount. In a recent study, Klaus and associates set out to investigate whether business ethics can be taught and reinforced as an indispensable soft skill for employees within specific organizational cultures. Specifically, the study attempted to provide insights with regards to how organizational cultures contribute to making individual employees more (or less) ethical when making business decisions.

Of course, we all know through Pavlov's dog experiments and basic operant conditioning paradigms that the environment (and its reward systems) plays a major role regarding the types and the frequency of behavior we display. If you associate a pleasant reward with a specific behavior, the likelihood of this behavior to occur again will increase. A business example could be a situation in which if you exceed your quarterly goals, you get a monetary bonus on top of your commissions. Most people would then do their best to exceed their goals to get the reward. However, if you associate an unpleasant experience with a behavior, the likelihood of that behavior will decrease. For example, if every time you speak up at a meeting, your idea is shut down by others or your manager, pretty soon you will stop sharing your ideas during meetings.

By extension, and as we have all experienced, organizational cultures (and the reward systems in place within them) play a significant role on increasing or decreasing the occurrence of specific behaviors, including ethical ones, at work. So what's new about the study mentioned above? Well it confirms what many already suspected: 87% of respondents indicated that they believed that lack of ethics was a determinant factor in the current economic disaster, and 80% of respondents believed that someone can learn ethics principles through training.

The interesting aspect of this study to me was that 59% of respondents agreed that a company's ethical culture contributes more than individual ethics to shady conduct in the workplace. If it is indeed true that a workplace reward system is stronger than individual employees' moral compass when it comes to making business decisions, then it is crucial for responsible business professionals to thoroughly investigate a possible employer's organizational culture (and the reward systems in place within each workplace) before joining any organizations.

Here are a few tips on how to investigate whether an organizational culture is truly about getting business done better:
Career Management Strategy #1 - Review their track record: Your first steps is using online tools to determine which organizations have a track record of success in doing things right over getting business done as usual. For tools on how to do so, see previous justmeans posts here, here and here.

Career Management Strategy #2 - Get the inside scoop through current employees: You can start online through sites such as, but it is best to get the inside scoop about an organization through current or former employees. I would advise that you meet with your contacts outside of their workplace. In addition, I would recommend that you tactfully invite comments rather than ask questions too directly. Questions along the lines of 'what are some of the challenges you faced while driving socio-eco changes in your organization?' are likely to get you more relevant information than questions such as 'the track record of social responsibility of your company is rather weak, why is this?' I know, I thought that it was unnecessary advice too, until I attended a corporate presentation during which an MBA student asked a version of the 2nd question...

Career Management Strategy #3 - Trust your guts: When you have that weird feeling about an organization, take that feeling into account and use it to drive further research into the aspects of the organizations that you need to clarify to have your doubts addressed. If your doubts persists, I would strongly recommend that you pass up on the opportunity.

The best possible responsible career management strategy is to avoid toxic organizational cultures, especially those that promote unethical behaviors, because, at the end of the day, the saying is right - There is no security in doing something for a living when you are dying inside while doing it.

Cartoon Credit: Bennett.