Leadership Lessons

When Ethics Fail: How Good People Make Unethical Decisions

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”. 


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.


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.


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 must 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:

  • calls from creditors or personal calls intensifying at work,
  • abnormal purchases without apparent new sources of funding,
  • lifestyle changes, and/or
  • 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:

  • requiring multiple signatures on checks,
  • require people to rotate job responsibilities from time to time,
  • strongly encourage employees to take vacations or time off, and/or
  • 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?

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 http://chuckgallagher.com or Chuck can be reached via email at[email protected].

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Performance & Productivity, Personal Development

Can You Sit Still For 180 Seconds? I Dare You.

Your ability to focus and properly allocate your time is instrumental to any success that you hope to achieve. However, the world, and specifically the internet, is not designed to help you focus. It is design to grab your attention with a compelling headline and suck you away from whatever you are working on to read some trivial piece of information that has nothing to do with your dreams, hopes and fears. 

There is no special cure for managing your distractions. There is no special app, no browser plugin, and no list of "The Top 10 Ways To..." that the world can ever give you that will help you be less distraction. 

Focus and concentration are a choice. Choose to focus and win the attention game. 

Or not. 

I dare you to watch this video for the next 180 seconds and do nothing else.

Do not pick up your phone. Do not move your mouse. Do not touch your keyboard. Use this as a simple exercise in concentration. Even I had a hard time doing it. But if you can do it, you'll start to understand the kind of focus that you will need to get other things done. Enjoy.

Click to play

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Generating Wealth

Do You Get Jealous of Successful People ?

Are you ever browsing the internet looking for ways to be more successful and more motivated?

Every now and again you'll stumble upon the blog of a person that is living the life you want to live. They look like they are famous. They talk about their money or other assets. They have a huge social media following. They are loved and adored by all their fans. And you are 100% sure that they are relaxing in their 10,000 square foot house drinking top grade alcohol while floating in their pool.

I've heard friends say that they encounter this often. And it is depressing. It is depressing to think that so many other people in the world that are doing so much better than you are. It can be almost painful at times to see that somebody else has no problem buying food. Or making their mortgage payment. Our putting clothes on their kid's backs.

If you go to the extreme, you might be one of those people who have an extreme hatred for successful people. Why do they deserve to get everything?

You are the one working two jobs and your lights still get cut off every now and then. If you ever feel yourself getting angry when you see somebody else's life, I want you to remember this list:

  1. You don't know that person's history/backstory. They may have been through more hell than you can imagine before they "made it". Some of the most successful people have been in jail, gone bankrupt multiple times, lost limbs, and have been through multiple divorces. You just never know.
  2. Anybody on the internet can portray anything. That person with the 10,000 square foot house could be in the middle of a foreclosure. You just never know.
  3. Every second you spend focusing on somebody else's money is one less second focusing on generating money for yourself. That is one of the reasons I spend a lot of time talking about time management on this blog.
  4. There is no shortage of success and money. If you want it bad enough, you will bust your ass to get it. No amount of jealousy or whining will pay your bills.

Pay close attention to #3.

The more time you spend on #3 the less time you have to spend on #4.

If you are frustrated with your lot in life, then stop wishing for something better and stop watching other people have what you want. Just go do it yourself. Now get off the internet and figure out how to generate your own personal fortune.

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Performance & Productivity, Personal Development

How to Waste Months of Your Life, 5 Minutes at a Time

Good morning/afternoon/evening high achievers. I am sure you have heard me talk about being hyper-aware of your time. Here is something I want you to be aware of as you get more focused on your perfect day.

There are places on the internet specifically created to keep your attention and waste your time. These places are filled with funny pictures and lists and are saturated with ads. The long they keep you on the website, the better the chance of you clicking on an ad. Some of these sites are Buzzfeed, TMZ, Upworthy, etc.

Why do I bring this up? Be very mindful of your time before your click any link of "the top 5 funniest ..." or the "top 20 cutest ..." that links to sites like this.
It is a GUARANTEED way to lose minutes of your life that:

  1. Will not help you
  2. You will never get back and
  3. You won't gain anything but some cheap entertainment.

We don't waste our time in days, weeks, and years. We waste it in minutes and seconds. We waste it in 5 - 15 minutes chunks. When you start to think in terms of micromanaging your attention, you start to learn that you should rarely click on things that will "only take 2 minutes" to read.

Be hyperaware of time.

Avoid the temptation of wasting 2 minutes when you have a bigger mission in mind.

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Performance & Productivity, Personal Development

The Three Three Crucial Success Assets That You Have To Manage

If you desire to live at a higher level you need to become disciplined in three areas of your life: Attention management, energy management and time management.

Attention Management:

What do you let enter your brain? Are you working on consuming information that is making you smarter? How much do you read vs. how much do you watch TV? Example: There is very little on TV that is educational. It is mostly entertainment. I'm all for a little entertainment, but nobody needs hours of it every day. I get on Facebook just like you do. But how much time do you spend on it per day browsing and commenting on other people's lives vs. learning? These are just two examples where your attention gets on things that may not taking you in the right direction.

Energy Management:

The human body has a limited amount of energy when you wake up every morning. Let's assume that you wake up on a normal day and are not sick. You have a finite bucket of energy in which to read, write, walk, drive, exercise, and just generally get things done. How much of that energy are you wasting? And are you consuming the right things to keep your energy level at its peak? Are you setting aside time every week to exercise and train your body to have higher energy levels?

Time Management:

I am sure you get tired of hearing about this from me. But it is important. Your time management is directly correlated to your attention management. When you don't think ahead and plan out your life, you have large blocks of idle time. Idle time tends to get filled with whatever shiny object catches your attention. And that shiny object is likely not part of your bigger goal set. Look at your calendar weekly and plan out where you spend attention intentionally.

In summary ...

You have a limited amount of attention, energy, and time. Be very stingy with all three of them. Use them for things that escalate your life and the lives of those around you. Idle minds never grow.

 Share/like if this would be useful to your friends. This may seem like basic information. But a lot of the time we forget about the basics and get lost in shiny objects. 

Shiny objects don't help us become high achievers.

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