I’ve faced many ethics quandaries in my long career. You will, too. Everyone believes they are ethical. But when it’s time to decide, what will you actually do?
Real-life ethics test
Here’s a list of ethical situations, most of which I actually faced. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do?
In the interest of transparency, I’ll share what actually happened in the first comment.
- Founder stock. As an analyst, you write frequently about an industry, including a rapidly growing startup company. You consult to the startup, providing valuable advice, as part of your job. As the startup prepares to go public, its founders offer you stock which will likely be worth at least $25,000. Do you accept the stock?
- Ads placed by mistake. While your phone is in your pocket, random taps cause it to identify one of your tweets and place ads to promote it. (I know, sounds unlikely, but yes, this actually happened.) Your debit card is billed $350 for the ads before you notice and can stop it. What do you do?
- Expense account overtip. While in Las Vegas on a business trip, you take a taxi between two hotels. The bill is about $7; you give the cabbie a $10 and say “Keep it.” Later, you realize that you actually gave the cab driver a $100 bill (because the ATMs in Las Vegas dispense hundred-dollar bills). How much do you claim on your expense report?
- Free blender. You write up a case study about Blendtec blenders (“Will it Blend?”) in a book that sells well. You later visit the blender company in Utah and make a promotional “Will it Blend?” video about the book with the CEO. The CEO sends you a very nice blender as a thank-you. The value of the blender exceeds the limits in your company’s gift policy, but not by much. Do you keep the blender?
- Minor accident. You are an American on vacation in London. Driving on the left is new to you. While driving a rental car with your small child in the back seat, you come to close to a parked car and clip the side view mirror with your own. There is no damage to your car; it’s not clear how much damage there is to the other car’s mirror as you drive by. You’re late and your family is waiting for you. What do you do?
- Stock options. Your company grants you stock options as part of your employment. Options worth over $15,000 appear in your account, but they are beyond what you are owed by the employment contract; there appears to be an error. What do you do?
- Hotel mixup. You arrive at a hotel in Paris early in the morning after a flight. You have instructed the travel agent to book you for the day before to ensure the room will be available in the morning. The travel agent misunderstands and books two days before, so you are billed for an extra hotel night. What do you claim on the expense account?
- Plagiarist boss. Your boss has a column in a publication. He takes something you wrote, revises it so it appears that it happened to him, and submits it to the publication. You find out after the column has been submitted. What do you do?
- Client impasse. You contract to write a book proposal for a client. Your initial drafts are weak because the client contributes very little in the way of actual ideas to work with. The client complains that you’ve done a poor job because there are typos in the draft. You keep asking to meet to get more of the client’s ideas; the client is nonresponsive. You’ve already been paid $7,500 for the first half of the work. What do you do?
- Speech reversal. You coauthor a book with colleagues and then make an agreement with your coauthors; each of you will give a keynote speech at one of your company’s events. The person in charge of one of the events contacts one of your coauthors and after that conversation, decides that you have lied to her (the event chair). She confronts you in front of another employee, accuses you of dishonesty, and says that your coauthor, not you, will be giving the speech at her event. What do you do?
- Goal manipulation. Your colleagues on your team must meet certain goals to earn bonuses. Another group at the company has figured out a loophole in the accounting system that it can use to help your colleagues meet their goals; they offer these incentives in exchange for favors they need for their own work. (The favors are things your colleagues ought to be doing anyway, but this persuasion makes them more willing to prioritize helping the other group.) While this activity seems wrong, it has no effect any of the company’s publicly reported numbers. What do you do?
Write down your answers. Then read the comments.
What would you do differently from what I did? And what ethical challenges did you face? What did you do?