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The importance of doing the right thing

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on November 18, 2014

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The ethical bar is higher than the legal one



Ethics is an area where we conveniently define higher standards for others but are hesitant to meet those standards ourselves. Talk to any individual on the street and you are likely to get agreement that corruption, at all levels, is ruining our nation’s fabric. Dig deeper and you will find the same person may have paid a bribe to a government official not long ago for a favour. 

The ethical bar is often higher than the legal bar because ethics are based on morals whereas laws are generally a compromise derived from political accommodation. In the corporate world, there’s the question of what we should do when we witness someone doing something wrong. Is the wrongdoing illegal, a violation of the employee handbook, or unethical? This issue is particularly vexing when the dishonest co-worker is actually a superior.

Hotlines

Modern companies have confidential ethics hotlines to which one can anonymously report such behaviour without fear of retribution.

When charged, most ethical violators typically respond as though they are reacting to the loss of a loved one. They first deny that it ever happened; then they express anger that they are being victimised; and when the noose is inevitable, they attempt to strike deals to get out of the mess they are in. The deal almost always includes a clause where they admit no wrongdoing although they accept other penalties. 

  Infosys case

 An example of this was headlined by IT major Infosys which has, for years, tried to cultivate a brand around ethics. But when American employee Jack Palmer complained to the Infosys hotline that he suspected some workers of illegally bringing in temporary workers from India on tourist visas, he was, as the  New York Times reported, “harassed by superiors and co-workers, sidelined with no work assignment, shut out of the company’s computers and denied bonuses.” In 2013, Infosys paid a huge $34 million fine to end a federal investigation related to visa abuse. However, Infosys has denied all the charges made by Palmer and continues to maintain the same stand of no wrongdoing on the issue.  

A common ethical issue we face is duly acknowledging credit for others’ work. Plagiarism within corporate walls, not being so high-profile, is either ignored or grudgingly accepted. The plagiarist would be furious if something physical were stolen from him – such as his wallet – but he would have no qualms about shamelessly copying and pasting someone else’s creation. 

High profile plagiarism cases have trapped journalist Fareed Zakaria and US Vice-President Joe Biden. Note that there is no statute of limitations here - that is, simply because the crime occurred many years ago it is generally not excused. Last year, the German Minister of Education was stripped of her PhD earned 34 years ago because she allegedly copied parts of her thesis. The minister resigned in disgrace. 

In the world of higher education too, we see ethical transgressions every day. Some students blatantly copy others’ Statements of Purpose, changing a few details here and there hoping that they would not be caught. Busy college professors ask students to write their own recommendation letters and submit to them for final signature. And lower ranked foreign universities blatantly resort to commission-based recruiting. Do agents really act in the student’s best interest or place the student into a mismatched institution because they are motivated by commissions? 

When you confront an ethical situation at work, follow your employee handbook or ask a senior for what the corporate practice typically is. Seek a confidential appointment with your HR manager. And to handle ethical grey areas - those that are not mentioned in your employee handbook - use the Potter Stewart test (The best way to detect unethical behaviour is to use the Stewart test. Ruling in a complicated case, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once defined obscenity in simple terms, “I know it when I see it.").

If something looks wrong, look at how you were raised and ask what behaviour on your part would have made your elders proud. This may give you a good framework to proceed.

The writer, a former Director at PwC, is Managing Director of Rao Advisors LLC, a higher education consulting firm.

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Published on November 18, 2014
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