Ethical Workplace Behavior: Don’t Leave Gray Areas

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What You Do Is Who You Are" by Ben Horowitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are your employees clear about the ethical expectations at your company? Are you consistently upholding behavior boundaries?

CEO and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz draws on historical examples to show how you can provide cultural leadership in your organization. For lessons on ethical workplace behavior, Horowitz looks to Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, who shows us that we must not leave ethical gray areas.

Keep reading to learn more about shaping ethical workplace behavior.

Lessons From Toussaint Louverture

Horowitz draws lessons from Toussaint Louverture, who led the military and diplomatic campaign that liberated enslaved people in Haiti and set the stage for its independence from France. Louverture continuously reinforced his cultural expectations for his soldiers. He spoke to his army regularly about ethics and kept them under strict discipline that didn’t allow for any of the usual acts of war, such as stealing and destroying property. 

(Shortform note: There might have been a darker side to Louverture’s strict discipline. For example, in Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions, Forsdick and Hogsbjerg explain that he didn’t allow peasants to buy plots of land. This meant that they were forced to continue working for plantation owners instead of working their own lands. Louverture believed peasants wanted to own their lands so they could be idle, and he worried their ideas would challenge his economic plan for the island.)

In the same way, Horowitz says leaders must spell out what ethical workplace behavior looks like and why it’s important to behave in that way. Ethical gray areas where the correct course of action is unclear leave room for each individual to decide. This can spell disaster for an organization if an individual makes a wrong choice.

Factors That Encourage Unethical Behavior

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek also warns that if ethics are not properly established in an organization it can fall into a process he calls ethical fading: People engage in increasingly unethical behavior while convincing themselves that they are acting fairly and properly. Besides stating your ethical expectations, Sinek suggests looking out for three factors that encourage unethical behavior:

1) Poorly designed incentives: If employees who cut corners are then rewarded with bonuses and promotions, other employees get the message that the organization prioritizes winning over ethics.

2) Use of rationalizations: Euphemisms that disguise the true nature of people’s actions, system-blaming, or even blaming the customer for enabling their behavior justify unethical behavior.

3) Symptom fixes that overlook the bigger picture: If leaders try to fix behavioral problems by implementing new rules and regulations instead of addressing the underlying reason for the issues, they create more hoops that employees will avoid having to jump through.

Example: An Uber-Competitive Culture

Although Uber founder Travis Kalanick thoughtfully designed the company’s culture, he left ethical gray areas that employees filled in with the company’s other values: a hustler’s mentality and an emphasis on competition. The culture didn’t clarify ethical boundaries, and it encouraged finding a way to “win” in every situation, which made ethical breaches commonplace. According to Horowitz, this led to Uber employees committing acts that exposed the company to liability while harming employees and customers. 

(Shortform note: Some experts see Uber’s problem as running deeper than culture, and they point to the business model itself. They argue that the economic model on which Uber is built doesn’t allow for the company to properly care for its customers and drivers—one major source of its ethical scandals. The company cannot afford to make necessary improvements without a substantial increase in its fees, which it cannot enforce without losing market share. Uber is then, as critics see it, trapped in a cycle of companywide unethical behavior.)

Ethical Workplace Behavior: Don’t Leave Gray Areas

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  • The three reasons leaders should care about culture
  • How a sense of purpose boosts employees' performance
  • What the Samurai and Genghis Khan can teach you about leadership

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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