How Good People Make Unethical Decisions
Leadership Lessons

When Ethics Fail: How Good People Make Unethical Decisions

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Far too often does the process of making bad choices, unethical choices, begin with a simple almost thoughtless decision.  How do I know?  I am living proof that good people can make really bad choices and profound doesn’t come close to describing the experience.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I see this coming. When I first started “borrowing” from my client I had every intent of paying back what I took. Heck, I did pay some of it back…at least at the beginning!” Those were the words I shared as I openly confessed that the life I was living was, for the most part, an illusion. Truth be told for all my legitimate successes, I had over time become no more than a liar and a thief. My choices created consequences that he never dreamed were possible.

Some people have advised that I should not be so transparent, especially when writing an article for such a prestigious organization.  By my recantation of my ethical fall is all too common. People who fold their arms stating “I would never do something illegal much less unethical!” find that what triggers inappropriate behavior is a basic part of human nature.  We are all subject to temptation and therefore can and do make bad choices.  I am but an example.

If bad choices lead to tough consequences, what can we do to identify bad behavior before it starts? What can we do, as managers or leaders, to prevent unethical choices from being made in the first place? Those are two very profound questions, both of which are at the heart of why it is critical to talk about the Human Side of Ethics in your organization

The Three Components of Bad Behavior

Research has shown that three behaviors are at the core of what would cause or allow an otherwise ethical person to make unethical and potentially illegal choices.  These behaviors are well documented and for those who are charged with detecting fraud (Statement of Auditing Standards #99) are called “the fraud triangle”

Need. Described as perceived pressure that a person is experiencing, is the first and critical component of what motives a person to stray from ethical to unethical. Need may come in a variety of forms. The person who is in too much debt likely experiences financial strain – which was the root of my need. Alice, a church secretary, found her need triggered by her granddaughter:54’s diagnosis of cancer. Infamous Bernie Madoff’s need was certainly not money; likely, he was triggered by the need to be infallible. Whatever the pressure, need is the core emotional state that starts the ball rolling from a choice that is ethical to unethical.

Opportunity. It makes no difference what your need may be if you don’t have the opportunity to satisfy it then the unethical and potentially illegal choice fails. Without Opportunity there is no fuel for the potential unethical fire. I was a trusted employee, and with that trust came opportunity. Alice was trusted, and had been for so many years that no one could comprehend she was capable of any unethical activity. Madoff took opportunity founded in trust to a new level.

Rationalization. Need combined with opportunity provides a firm foundation, but the glue that holds unethical activity together is the ability to rationalize that what is wrong, is right.  If you ask most people found guilty of unethical/illegal behavior, they will tell you they felt their actions were legitimate. Mark, for example, rationalized that he was not “stealing” money as long as his intent was to pay it back. Further, he solidified this mental game by paying some of the money back. “Surely, I wasn’t guilty of stealing money as long as I was paying it back,” he stated.

The mind can be tricky and when you combine need with opportunity, and can rationalize bad:00 behavior as good, you have the perfect storm to move from ethical to unethical, and potential illegal, behavior.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Unethical Activities?

As business managers, HR Directors and those connected with Compliance, there are clear actions we can take that can help keep folks between the ethical lines.

Look for Need! While we can’t control what needs our employees have, we can be aware of any changes or activities that would suggest an increase in need and the stress that need brings.

I was the one responsible for my unethical actions.  I was in too much debt and succumbed to the pressure of my need by turning to an unethical activity.  I blame no one, but I also have to acknowledge that if those close to me (my partners in business for example) had noticed my changing patterns of behavior their attention might have thwarted my actions.

When subconscious need is brought to light or becomes conscious, then often the outcome is reduced inclination toward unethical behavior.  So, signs to look indicating increased need are: (1) calls from creditors or personal calls intensifying at work; (2) abnormal purchases without apparent new sources of funding; (3) lifestyle changes and/or (4) marital issues or challenges with aging parents.

Need is the fuel that supports the possibility of unethical behavior.  The challenge most managers face with thinking about “Need” is to be open minded enough to consider the potential sources of “Need” so that what might fuel unethical behavior can be suppressed.

Minimize Opportunities. The most effective course of action to keep our employees and associates between ethical lines is to remove opportunities to conduct unethical activities. For example, I embezzled money from a client’s trust fund. While I am not proud of that action (now some 25+ years ago), had the bank account that I used required two signatures, the embezzlement would have been far more difficult. Think about it, with that minor change what would I do, ask the co-signer to help me steal money from the trust? The answer is simple, of course not.  So, less opportunity equals less chance for unethical activity.

A practical question is how do we reduce opportunity?  Some of the answers are obvious.  Minimize opportunities by: (1) requiring multiple signatures on checks; (2) require people to rotate job responsibilities from time to time; (3) strongly encourage employees to take vacations or time off; and/or (4) ask employees from different positions within the company to identify how people can or do act unethically.  When a person is aware that their actions are being watched or subject to being watched, the “Opportunity” factor decreases substantially.  As worn out as the line might be, people really do respect what management inspects.  Of course, management must be subject to inspection as well.

Train Rationalization. Depending on one’s internal ethical compass, what one person can easily rationalize may be a problem for another.  Therefore, as managers our role (just as important as the more analytical “Opportunity” role) is to educate our people on the significance of “Rationalization” identifying what it sounds like and when it might appear.

When employees hear what rationalization sounds like, when we bring to consciousness what is active in the subconscious, it becomes far easier to support each other in our ethical choices. At a recent ethics seminar an attendee commented, “But everybody does it.” As those words were spoken, another participant yelled out, “Rationalization!” The crowd erupted in laughter as people began to see just how simple and easy it is to rationalize the “little things”. And, when we rationalize the little, the larger unethical choices become easier to swallow.

Your Ethical Culture

Every business or organization needs to remember that the creation of an ethical culture is exemplified in the actual behavior and attitudes of all team members.  The question is not so much whether you talk the talk (in policy documents, training materials or video or webinars), but rather whether you walk the walk.

Want to create a culture of ethical behavior in your organization? It’s easy if you think about it. When you start by understanding how good people make bad choices, and follow it with an effective ethics-training program that reinforces ethical choices and accountability, you have a recipe for success. Every choice has a consequence. What choices do you make for your organization to help keep your most valuable assets between the ethical lines?

About the Author
Chuck Gallagher is the President of the Ethics Resource Group and an international expert in business ethics. Chuck provides training, presentations and consultation with associations and companies on ethics and creating ethical cultures where people do the right thing, not because they have to, but because they want to!  Information can be found at or Chuck can be reached via email

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Attitude Adjustment

10 Happy Things To Think About When You Open Your Eyes

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The first one to five minutes after you wake up and open your eyes can frame oyur entire day. There are two thoughts that you have for every action. The first one is the decision whether or not to do a ‘thing’ that you know we have to get done. But the second often overlooked thought process is your attitude about the ‘the thing’ that has to get done. The attitude about getting something done can make the task miserable or joyful. But to control that you have to always be working on the conscious attitudes about what you are getting ready to do. The most important time that you need control your attitudes (or “meta thoughts”) are when you open your eyes in the morning.

Here are some suggested thoughts for when you open your eyes each day.

  1. “Holy cow. I’m alive for another day.”
  2. “There is a roof over my head. I am very grateful for that.”
  3. “Somebody else in the world loves me enough to want to share my bed with me. Oh cool. Look at that. She/He is right there. “
  4. “I need to get this body hydrated and moving. If I don’t take care of it, it will fall apart on me. A well-maintained pain-free body will allow me to accomplish my dreams and goals faster.”
  5. “Am I up early? Time to get a jump on the competition. Those suckers are still in bed. (Unless they are reading the same blog post I read on about morning thoughts)”
  6. “I am thankful that I have a smart kid who is not in jail or addicted to any substance.”
  7. “How can I use my time today to improve the life of the other people in this house?”
  8. “How can I best use my time today to improve the life of another person outside of this house?”
  9. “Who can I learn from today who knows more than me and can boost my intelligence?”
  10. “Do not get involved in petty arguments on or offline. They zap energy, make me defensive, are rarely productive, and they take time away from living my dreams.”

I’d love to hear what you think about when you wake up. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Stop Should-ing
Attitude Adjustment

Stop Should-ing All Over Yourself: Avoid Powerless Language

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Four and a half years ago, I was in a mental hospital. A combination of a tumor forming in my pituitary gland altering my brain chemistry and an abusive relationship situation proved to be my breaking point. I needed help. Thankfully, I asked for it.

The three days and three nights I spent in that hospital were some of the worst of my life. I won’t go into details here, but it wasn’t a place for my healing. When I finally escaped (which is what it felt like) I went to an intensive outpatient group therapy program where, for 10 hours a week, I learned to manage my illness, change my thought processes, and how to understand what was going on in my mind (neurotransmitters and synapses and uptake—oh my!).

In recovery, you learn not to beat yourself up (in my case, literally) for what you “should” have done because, quite frankly, if you were capable of making a better choice at that point in time, you would have done so. My therapist would stop us mid-sentence if we used the s-word, “No should-ing!” she’d say.

This lesson, more than others, stuck with me. And as an entrepreneur, I find myself caught into the should-ing trap more than I’d like to admit. I try to stop using the s-word.

It’s harder than you think.

Start counting the times during a day where you put this conditional word into conversations. In the majority of cases it’s not a healthy word, and it’s also relatively powerless as a language tool.

“I should’ve picked a different website theme.”

“I should think about alternative sources of income.”

“I shouldn’t have rushed that report.”

We’re should-ing all over ourselves!

If you knew that the theme you chose wouldn’t satisfy your business or aesthetic needs when you made the decision, you would have chosen differently. Should-ing this is nothing more than a veiled complaint at best, and an excuse for further lacks in productivity at worse.

Instead, say:

“A website theme with X functionality would better suit my needs.”

“I will brainstorm additional sources of income.”

“I need to manage time better so I don’t rush reports.”

And then, of course, take action on these statements.

Or, even worse—we should all over others!

“You should’ve ended that relationship a long time ago.”

“You should change your business model.”

“You shouldn’t have hired that consultant.”

There’s little to no benefit that can come from this powerless, conditional word. At the absolute best, you get someone to realize that you think he made a poor decision and therefore he evaluates his actions in hindsight (but only after realizing that he has lost standing in your eyes). At worst, you’re belittling someone’s decision, placing blame, and giving no direction whatsoever.

The words we use speak volumes. When you’re working with clients, you want to communicate confidence. When you’re talking to a friend, you want to communicate empathy. “Should” does not fit into either of these scenarios.

In the words of Yoda “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Similarly, you did or you didn’t—there is no should.

Be proactive with your language. Give direction, not condition. Use powerful words that give advice, not powerless words that place blame.

Stop should-ing. Start doing.

Impromptu Guru Jill Schiefelbein
Impromptu Guru Jill Schiefelbein

Jill Schiefelbein, Impromptu Guru, is a communication expert who doesn’t like should being thrown at her. She helps others communicate with confidence and be prepared to speak well any time and every time. Learn more at or watch her in action on YouTube.

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Your Soul Sucking Job
Personal Development

Three Ways to Feel Better About Your Soul-Sucking Job

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Dear Aspiring Entrepreneur, You’re Doing It Wrong

You’re an entrepreneur. A go-getter. A world changer. A starter-upper. The only problem is you’re still working for someone else, for now. You’re saving money, trying to cut expenses, getting up at 5 am, sharing the “master plan” with friends and family. You watch the minutes tick tock by, put in as little effort as possible, and then sprint home to get back to work on your side business. Many, if not most, entrepreneurs start hustling while still employed for someone else. That’s not the issue. The issue is that successful entrepreneurs realize that no matter where they are employed, they are working for themselves.

If you really want to achieve your goal of going out on your own, it’s time to figure out a way to leverage your current situation. Even if you have reached the ceiling at the company. Even if your boss is worse than Darth Vader. Even if you’re surrounded by complainers, coasters or haters. How? From now on, your day job is:

1 – Your Step Ladder

I know how hard it is to stay motivated on projects at work when your heart and brain want to be shaping your business into reality. But what if you saw every challenge at work as an potential resume builder in order to land a better job. Yes, another job, but a better one. A raise would allow you to put more into savings and pay down your debt faster. A company with a better reputation or higher visibility gets your name in front of more eventual-potential-customers. Plus, establishing yourself as someone who is moving, shaking and getting promoted in your industry easily translates into momentum for the launch of your own brand.

2 – Your Practice Field

When is the last time you went over and asked a friend in accounting what they were tackling that day? Or if you’re an accountant, when is the last time you went and asked someone in marketing how they come up with creative content? Remember you will be ALL of the departments when you launch your venture. Learn as much as you can all day everyday. If your boss ticks everyone off, what can you learn for your future employees? If the company loses a large client or giant product order, why? How can you make sure you don’t make that mistake?

3 – Your Personal Gym

I know, I know, similar to practice field, but hear me out. Practice fields are situational, but you, at the gym, that’s personal. Even though working on our passions is the most fulfilling, we don’t have to let our entrepreneurial muscles atrophy for 40 hrs a week, we can use that time! Take a look around your workplace and try and find holes to fill or problems to solve. Creativity takes practice. Staying laser focused takes practice. Innovation takes practice. Effective problem solving takes practice. The more you “work out” at your job, the more prepared you’ll be to do the heavy lifting for your own brand.

Remember, you’re working for you now. Make every hour count, and soon you’ll no longer be counting down the hours!

Kelsey Humphreys
Kelsey Humphreys

Kelsey Humphreys is the author of GO SOLO: How to Quit the Job You Hate and Start a Small Business You Love and an emerging authority on the subjects of branding, marketing, entrepreneurship and personal development. After starting her career as a graphic designer, her passion for those subjects led her to become the Associate Creative Director at one of Oklahoma’s largest advertising agencies. She then landed an international client and was able to quit her dream job for her dream; starting her own business. Now she speaks, consults, coaches, and writes to help other multi-passionate entrepreneurs avoid her mistakes and launch a solo business they’ll truly love.

Humphreys lives in Oklahoma City with her high school sweetheart husband, their daughter, and two feisty dogs. Follow Kelsey on twitter @kelseyhumphreys

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Attitude Is Everything
Attitude Adjustment

Why do they say “Attitude is Everything”?

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Because attitude is the interpretation of life as it comes at you. Your senses pick up signals about the world around. Your brain has to listen to the things that people do to you, for you, and sometimes against you. Their words and actions are life coming at you. All of those words and actions have to go through your attitude to get to the other part of your brain that controls your mood and your reaction. Two different people can ingest the same set of words and react to them differently because of the internal attitude.

Sometimes you cannot control all of that outside crap that you have to ingest. But the attitude is the ONE filter that you can always control. It is the only thing that matters when it comes to happiness, sadness, joy and pain. Sometimes that attitude can get the crap beat out of it too. After so much sadness and pain the attitude has to just take a break. F that happy crap. I deserve to be a little pissy for awhile. But it should eventually recover and be stronger on the other side.

If you have a pissy attitude, ride it out and get over it. It won’t get you anywhere. If you have a great attitude, then the world is yours for the taking.

Try to have a great attitude today.

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