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21 August 2007



The specific ethical problems that you bring up sound like a matter of ethics in human relationships -- the basic ethics that, as you say, "we are supposed to have learned at a young age."

There are other kinds of ethics, that we aren't supposed to have learned at a young age. For example, professional ethics has principles and factors that are specific to a profession. (I assume that academic ethics would be a professional matter -- e.g. the issue of taking credit is fundamentally different between newspaper journalism and academic journals.)

Also, the ethics of the workplace, which is not merely "political" in the derogatory sense. It's so complex that simple rules and common-sense outrage are inappropriate. Nobody's supposed to learn how to handle this stuff as a child.

Now, there are serious debates about whether these are distinct kinds of ethics, about which kind is foundational, and about whether there are distinct kinds at all.

But you're talking about WHAT TO DO, not how to analyze in the abstract. And so I must stop here, because I'm a professional, after all.

But I'm also a blowhard academic, so I'll add: I think it's helpful to avoid confusing the issues. One isn't (directly) Defending the Profession when one struggles with workplace pettiness. And one isn't raising the moral tenor of one's workplace when one upholds the ideals of the profession.


Workplace ethics - or more accurately, ethics in general - are a difficult thing to produce through regulation. At their most effective and sustainable, ethical systems are voluntary codes of conduct, subscribed to not in response to mandate or policy, but by continuing willful choice.

Lest this begin to taste too academic and theoretical, allow me to offer some professional examples:

I've worked in a great many firms and industries, and for organizations with greatly varying levels of professionalism. In almost all of these work environments, ethical behavior was encouraged, but rarely if ever was it clearly defined. Clear definitions in the workplace tend to attract lawyers; in order for something to be required or regulated, it must be able to stand up to litigation... which frightens most workplaces into bland, toothless "encouragements" and "suggestions" of professional ethics.

But I also observed that the level of commitment to solid, earnest ethics in the workplace varied directly according to the the intensity of the loyalty and morale felt by the staff. Overworked, underpaid individuals who don't trust each other or their employers are more likely to adopt unethical means to either succeed or avoid failure; those workers who are made to believe, heart and soul, in the mission of their work and the quality of the people around them tend to treat their coworkers and employers with more respect and fair behavior.

It's a societal trend. I blame globalization. Labor and productivity have always been commodities, but I truly feel that never before have units of work been so coldly traded as these days, where the job goes to the lowest bidder and the perks provided are the bare minimum to remain compliant with law. The ever-surging prevalence of lawsuits and complaints and bank-account-tipping settlements has created an environment where copmanies no longer see their employees as assets, but risks. Human resource departments no longer work to represent the staff, but to protect the company from them. Documents are triple-checked for loaded language that might come back to haunt the writer. Doctors are finding great success pursuing law degrees and operating as blockade-runners, protecting other doctors from the various pitfalls that await them in the operating room.

We've fallen into a place of legislation and regulation as our tools for "bettering" ourselves, when we might better be served by purusing a more abstract cultural trend of personal responsibility. Move away from a mindset of entitlement, where rights are inalienable and anyone deserves anything. "Deserve" and "inalienable" are seductively crippling words when it comes to the ethical fiber of our society.

Better sheep, not better fences. That should be our focus - not just in the workplace, but culturally. That's the next step in our evolution as a species.


Very interesting post. If I were in your situation, I would take the guilty out for a drink, without any BS or beating around the bush, ask them for their version of the story. If they seem to come clean, great, if not, you don't have a choice but to let them cannot let people like that ruin your workplace culture...

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Work ethics should be observed no matter what type of work you are doing. When these are not observed, bad things could happen. Bad work ethics can lead to unsatisfied customers/patients/clients. Let's say you're a doctor from Oakland, and you display bad work ethics. Some of your actions can lead to a patient suing you. Your patient can always hire a good Oakland medical malpractice attorney to help them. They're not just any typical Oakland lawyers. Those Oakland medical malpractice lawyers are very adept, mind you.

Bottom line, you should always keep work ethics in mind. It's better than having to deal with bad things resulting from your unethical actions.

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