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Crossing the Integrity Line: How to Handle Ethical Dilemmas

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How far would you go for a client, customer or boss?

The owner of a consumer services company once asked me to pose as a prospect with 10 of his competitors in order to find out their processes and pricing.

I declined, and he asked, surprised, “Why not?”

Perhaps you’ve been asked to do something similar that puts you in a gray area ethically. The ask can seem simple enough, like the agent whose client asks her to use his relative’s domestic address for transactions, and then discovers that the client appears to be living overseas. Or a production manager whose boss tells him to alter the ingredient information on a product label to confuse competitors trying to duplicate the formula.

In the current business environment, it’s easy to slip across the integrity line. There are no easy answers to ethical dilemmas, but there are questions that can guide your decisions. Here are four to ask when you’re wondering how far to go.

Can you defend your actions?

If you confront an ethical dilemma and decide to take actions, can you justify them, if or when they come to light?  Will you be able to explain your behavior to others — your family, business associates and community — and keep their trust and respect? It was clear to me that posing as a prospect wasn’t true to the way I choose to do business.

Can you sleep at night?

You’re the one who must live with the decisions you make. Decisions that go against your personal values will erode your peace of mind and effectiveness.  If the situation raises red flags for you, trust your instincts.

Is it worth sacrificing your reputation for this decision?

The business owner who approached me wasn’t thinking about my reputation, but I was.

“A single lie destroys a whole reputation of integrity,” wrote author Baltasar Gracián in the early seventeenth century. His advice is still relevant. Are you willing to risk the reputation you’ve built by crossing the integrity line for someone else?

Are there other options to achieve the outcomes?

I knew I would decline the business owner’s request. I also knew that there are many ways for a business to research competitors that don’t raise ethical dilemmas. Some situations don’t have clear options. If you can’t identify other options and you’ve been honest in answering the first three questions, you already know what decision to make.

Business situations often hover near the integrity line. The best way to stay on the right side of that line is to be clear about the value of your own integrity.