Doing What’s Right—and Being Smart About It

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In any career, ethical challenges will arise. A new book shows how to be ready to meet the moment when it comes.

At a company dinner, a client puts his hand on your knee under the table. A senior manager asks you—“just this once”—to fudge data in an important report. Members of a project team make sexist or racist jokes at a meeting. Colleagues routinely falsify expense accounts and expect you to join in. A bullying boss shouts down moral and legal concerns about a company policy and threatens retaliation if you don’t keep silent.

Ethical dilemmas like these, shared by Wharton MBA students in G. Richard Shell’s Responsibility in Business class, provided the seed for Shell’s new book, The Conscience Code: Lead With Your Values, Advance Your Career (HarperCollins Leadership).

“Authentic, lasting success in any profession demands adherence to the highest standards of integrity. When you bring your sense of right and wrong to work, you can enjoy tranquility in that most private of all domains: your conscience,” Shell writes in the introduction. But that can be very hard to keep in mind, he concedes, “when the heat is on to make deadlines, please bosses, and fulfill client demands.”

The author of previous books on persuasion and negotiation, Shell is the Thomas Gerrity Professor at Wharton and chairs the department of legal studies and business ethics. He created the Responsibility in Business course a decade ago and teaches several sections each year. In it, he invites students to write up a brief description of times when they felt they had responded well and badly to an ethical challenge, from which he then selects for group discussion, with the student’s permission. “The fact that they’ve been willing to share them has been a revelation,” Shell says, and has “opened up the vulnerability of the students, so that they are willing to discuss these things that have traumatized them, in some ways—and offer suggestions for each other.”

Certain themes come up year after year: sexual harassment, abusive bosses, inflating expense accounts, “misrepresenting data” provided to clients. With their personal details disguised, many of them serve as case studies.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing, I think, unless you’re a psychopath,” Shell says. What often trips people up is fear. “Even the most courageous person feels fear,” he adds. “And if you’re 26 or 27 years old, having your office create this emotion for you can cause people to duck for cover and just hope and pray it’ll go away.”

Personality type also plays a role. “Some people are really reluctant to engage in interpersonal conflict—even if it’s a negotiation, they don’t like to do it—and conflict over values is going to be much more reactive,” he says. This is especially daunting when the other person is older, more experienced, and wields authority, “which is almost certainly the case for my demographic, the people who I’m writing for,” Shell says, referring to MBA students in their 20s with only a few years of work experience under their belts. “So, I tried to write the book to prepare people for that moment.”

The moment will almost certainly come at some point. Shell cites research showing that about 40 percent of employees say they witness wrongdoing every year, and 25 percent report that they’ve been asked to participate in it by peers or superiors.

Listening to the students’ stories, Shell realized that “there was no place that I could point them to, to say how you could be proactive and be more effective and have less regret and more options when these things happen, and so The Conscience Code was born out of my attempt to put that in one place.”

In the book, Shell offers 10 rules—from “Face the Conflict” to “Choose to Lead”—that derive from a four-stage “values-to-action process” with the acronym ROAD: Recognize that a value is at risk, Own the problem, Analyze your decision, and Design your action plan.

“It’s a pretty commonsense way of formulating the steps toward action,” he says. “Then the rules fall out of those four steps, so each section of the book is a collection of chapters, or in one case a single chapter, that handles each of those stages.”

To make his case, Shell also draws on classic psychology experiments and considers high-profile business scandals, corruption in law enforcement and other fields, true crime, and historical events. Those stories—from how two 23-year-olds helped bring down the fraudulent medical-device manufacturer Theranos, to a nurse whose sharp observation and quick thinking exposed a serial-killer colleague, to what separates individuals who hid or rescued Jews in the Holocaust and others who followed orders to murder them—are there to show that ethical behavior “is a continuum; it’s not just, get to the moral crisis and those are the only ones that count,” he says. “Having the confidence to speak up for yourself starts with the small—a moment in the office, the team meeting where someone tells a sexist joke or makes a racist comment.”

Shell quotes Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins, who once observed that “wrongdoing requires only three conditions to take root and thrive: pressure, opportunity, and a face-saving rationalization.”

Perhaps the book’s most important message, Shell says, “is never do it alone.” People facing pressure to commit or overlook wrongdoing often doubt their capacity to respond ethically. “I think the biggest mistake they make is they internalize it,” he says. “They don’t think about how they could bring someone else into the picture that they can talk to, get advice from, or even form an alliance with, that would allow them to find confidence to do it.”

He notes that in the famous experiments devised by Solomon Asch (in which peer pressure led subjects to agree that lines of different length were the same) and Stanley Milgram (where subjects were induced to deliver what they believed were increasing levels of electric shocks to another person), individuals were more likely to resist when a supportive third party was introduced into the situation.

Shell emphasizes that confronting and attempting to correct unethical behavior is unlikely to be a one-off event. “Something is going to happen that you didn’t anticipate,” he says, “so then you have to improvise from there: ‘What happened, where am I now, how do I continue to take action and be effective?’—as well as not be reckless with your own career and your own safety.”

Despite the book’s subtitle, he doesn’t suggest that good deeds are always rewarded, at least in the short term; nevertheless, he insists, behaving ethically is the wisest career choice. “To a lot of people, when they encounter these conflicts, their immediate decision tree looks like, ‘Conscience or career?’—it’s either/or—and my approach to it is, ‘No, conscience is career.’”

Standing up for your values means you’re willing to pay some price for having them. “You don’t want to do it stupidly,” he adds. “But in the end, your career ought to reflect the best of who you are as a person and not just be a ladder you climb at any price.” —JP

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