Hardly a day seems to go by without another public figure being accused of actions that are either immoral or unethical (or both), but who steadfastly maintain that they have done nothing illegal. They're in the media, on TV talk shows and the subjects of water cooler conversations. They're people like Lance Armstrong, former Penn State Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, Goldman Sachs Director Rajat Gupta and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, to name just a few.
Each of these individuals has concocted a story that allows them to rationalize, justify or deny their behavior – a story each used to absolve themselves of blame or guilt so they could create their own truth and not have to confront their inappropriate behavior. Thus their "I did nothing illegal" story is simply a ploy to evade self-responsibility.
However, there's something more here in the groundswell of the masses who are quick to judge others. One name that is conspicuously missing from the list of those who aggressively assert their "legal non-guilt" is "everyman" – you and me.
I am you
From the boardroom on the top floor to the mailroom in the basement, and on every floor in between, there is a "me" – someone who has not taken the moral high ground, someone whose moral compass does not point to True North, someone who has their own "story" to justify their unethical, illegal or immoral behavior. They aren't well-known, famous or infamous, but they are behaving badly nevertheless.
So every time we point an accusatory finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back to "me".
It's not the amount
For example, people who steal supplies from the office or walk off with pens and towels from hotels. People who cheat on their income taxes, call in sick when they aren't, spend company time surfing the Internet, refuse to pay vendors with trumped-up excuses, bill clients for more fees than they deserve, or "borrow" intellectual property. Each of these has their story ("I have done nothing illegal") which they tell to rationalize and justify their inappropriate behaviour - behavior that is no more or no less egregious than the "big-shots" who appear in daily newscasts.
If one person steals 50 billion dollars while a number of non-notorious individuals find ways to pilfer small amounts, they are no less culpable. Their moral compass is no less "off" than that of some shamed personality. It's not the amount that matters, it's the behavior.
Those who view this as an "apples and oranges" comparison need to question their own thought-process and their own "story" about why they need to think that way, separating themselves from those who are behaving badly.
The point here is that these "big fish" were once "small fish". When did the inappropriate behaviors they exhibited on the way up begin and how did the degree of inappropriateness increase? Taking their first drink, the alcoholic never dreams of becoming an alcoholic. Eating a first dish of ice cream, the slim never dreamed of becoming obese. Making an initial furtive glance, the innocent never envisioned having an affair. But they all have stories to rationalize a next drink, a next dish of ice cream and a next glance - and more. That's the way one stolen pen, or dollar, or idea or kiss leads to acts that are immoral or unethical, even if they're not actually illegal.
So, for the Lances, the Rays, and for Everyman - you and me - what are our stories and how did we come to create them?
- Do you use a "story" to absolve yourself from guilt when you act out of integrity?
- How do you feel when others who have acted immorally or unethically but not "illegally" state their rationalization?
- Who or what usually takes you out of integrity?
- Does it ever bother you when you're out of integrity? How do you deal with it?
- Do you use the same definition to define integrity, ethics or morality for yourself and for others? If not, why not?
- How do you respond when others' unethical acts affect you?
- What was your experience around unethical or immoral behavior as you were growing up? How did these experiences make you feel?
- Can you envision a life where you never act immorally, unethically or out of integrity? What would that be like?
Integrity is like being pregnant
Integrity is not a cloak you can put on and take off when convenient. You can't put it on to point the finger at others and take it off when I need to cut yourself a little "integrity slack" to justify why you lie, cheat or steal. Integrity is like being pregnant. You either are or you're not.
Many of us are quick to judge others who act without integrity, ethics or morality. But many of us are also just as prone to separate from our core values when it's convenient. But why? What benefits does acting out of integrity bring? And equally, what is the story we use to rationalize why are we so quick to point the accusatory finger at others while turning a blind eye to our own actions?
No single snowflake ever wants to be responsible for the avalanche. Yet many of us are effectively snowflakes contributing to the current avalanche of blue- and white-collar crime, dishonesty and unethical behaviour. It's not just the Rays, Jerrys and Lances who lack moral compasses and choose the load road. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us".
So the next time you're standing in line waiting to point the finger at someone, you might take a moment to reflect on your own ethics, integrity and morality.