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April 2015

ethics word cloud on digital tabletThe phrase “Conduct Unbecoming” is at the core of Article 133 of the Code of Military Justice and it is at the core of the definition that defines the failure of a certified or licensed professional, such as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or engineer, to conduct himself/herself in accordance with the standards of his/her profession. This phrase states clearly and unambiguously that a person’s behavior did not meet accepted norms. That person failed to do the right thing at the right time.

Large companies have a wide range of in-house courses for all types of disciplines. These courses are maintained and supervised by different departments, but they all serve a central purpose, and that is to make sure employees maintain their skills and adhere to the employer’s standards. Most, but not all, are self-taught, and many courses apply to all employees regardless of their discipline.

Ethics is one of those courses that applies to all employees and this course does not just cover a company’s compliance obligations, but requires that employees understand their behavior matters wherever they are. The notion of Conduct Unbecoming is an inherent part of the ethics courses being taught by companies, and because of these initiatives within companies over the past 30 years, most people working in a corporate environment know that behaviors away from work can have a detrimental effect on their employer’s reputation and can impact their employment.

I say most people because there are more than a few companies that still pay lip service to the notion that it a serious discipline. They have not yet recognized that ethics is itself a discipline that has to be practiced much as one practices accounting or engineering or any of a hundred other disciplines. As I stated in an earlier newsletter, it is not enough to shake the dust off the policy once a year, and route the procedures around to get employee sign-offs that they have read it and affirm their understanding of the policies and procedures. Companies that do not treat ethics as a discipline will eventually find themselves in trouble.

Recent events demonstrate that this notion of ethics as a discipline has not become as universal as it should. The evening news anchor at NBC Nightly News is currently being investigated by his employer for Conduct Unbecoming in the execution of his duties both on and off the job. In this particular instance the ethical failures, if true, will be studied and debated for decades to come. In a separate incident a female sports reporter was recently suspended for Conduct Unbecoming for behavior that has created a virtual firestorm in print, on television, and across social media. Her job and her future are very much in doubt.

It is ironic that many of the ethics training courses used in corporations today reinforce the basic truth that employees need to examine their behavior not only against the company’s standards, but also against the idea that their behavior might be reported in the newspaper or on television. These examples are a sobering lesson for those who believe that bending the rules or taking shortcuts do not have consequences.

Food for Thought: It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. (Aristotle)

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