Rule #1: The test of ethical behavior is always “would your mother approve?”

Back in the 1980”s (you remember the 80’s-the “me generation”, big hair, bad rock and roll), institutions began to develop courses on ethical behavior in response to a perceived lack of ethical behavior in the workplace (venerable Harvard Law School placed an ethics course in their curriculum which generated more then a modest amount of chuckles from folks having to deal with Harvard educated lawyers). I attended one of the first ethics courses delivered to managers in my agency. The first question the instructor raised to the class was “what is the barometer you use for making ethical decisions?’ While a deathly hush fell over the assembled group, I had no trouble explaining that all of my ethical decisions in life were easily made once I answered the question to myself “would I be ashamed of telling my mother what I did?” If the answer was yes, then I knew in my heart that it was wrong. In all honesty, I did on occasion pick such an alternative, but at least I knew it was wrong.

You might well ask, “Who is this women of such knowledge and intelligence that she could be utilized as an ethical barometer?” My mother was an immigrant whose family fled the Austrian-Hungarian empire when she was two years old. Her formal education lasted seven years at which point she was forced to enter the workforce due to the sudden death of her father. She never learned to drive a car, did not become an American citizen until her late 30’s, and was extremely self-conscious around others with more education and/or money. However, she was reader and a listener who possessed an understanding of the human condition. While any question or situation I brought to her might require considerable description of the facts and an explanation of the rules and regulations I was operating under, I could clearly recognize what she would see as the “right and wrong “ alternatives. So I really didn’t have to ask her opinion (although on more then one occasion I did which revalidated my opinion) as the real question is “would I be ashamed of telling her what was my decision.

Some of you may not have had the benefit of a mother as I have described mine, but I would certainly hope that there is or has been someone in your life (father, mentor, spouse, friend) that can play this role in your mental calculations. Having such a base significantly improves the consistency and appropriateness of your decisions. Without such a base, one is doomed to decisions based on situational ethics, political correctness, or merely whims.

Photo attributed to: Flickr User “One From RM” Under Creative Commons Licensing

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Another good test is, “Would I want this printed across the front page of the newspaper?”

And I agree, if your mother isn’t the best example to use, then subsitute whatever role model or mentor you prefer. Think of the person who’s opinion of you you most care about — how would he/she react to your actions?

John Ressler

The only problem I have with with “printed in newspaper headlines” is that on occassion political correctness and morality can colide. I’ve made more then a few decisions in my life that where the “right decision” would have generated more political heat then taking a different stance.