The drama in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office continues regarding allegations that associates of Christie sought to punish the mayor of Fort Lee by ordering the closing of lanes of traffic leading from his borough to the George Washington Bridge.
The situation is certainly an example of government derailed, but it is also a challenge to our view of workplace loyalty. What can we all learn from this ethical train wreck?
We don’t know whether or not Christie had established a clear-cut moral compass for his staff. Regardless, it appears as though some of them chose to go rogue.
Establishing and communicating this ethical foundation of any organization is the first step in creating the ethical workplace — followed by a formal code of ethics, conduct and mission statement plus ongoing ethics training. Employees need and deserve a blueprint on what is acceptable workplace behavior and what is not, and this north-star compass must start from the top.
The dark side of loyalty
But for all its virtue, loyalty has a dark side as well. In the past, the concept of workplace loyalty really meant blind loyalty, ergo unconditional, unthinking and unquestioned compliance with your boss’ requests.
When a company overemphasizes this kind of blind devotion, we have what FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley terms “groupthink.” The result is a dangerous lack of skepticism and debate, denial of reality and suspension of personal responsibility.
Those raising questions are seen as disloyal, even when they have crucial and perhaps lifesaving concerns. In this culture, you can even naively follow a charismatic leader straight over the cliff. Loyalty gone awry is betrayal at its worst.
Today’s employees recognize they are not only accountable for their own actions but accountable also for any misbehavior they may witness. They realize they are at higher risk for suffering legal, personal and professional consequences of their actions, inaction, complicity or silence.
No professional can operate with blinders on.
Commitment’s the new loyalty
Fortunately, today’s definition of loyalty has morphed into a commitment to do the right thing. This is a commitment first to your personal and professional standards, then to your company’s mission, and then to your supervisors’ mission. This can best be described by following what I call the “ethical-priority compass.’’
This is a simple, hierarchical approach to orient yourself to any ethical dilemma (loyalty or otherwise). If you follow these three points — in this order — you will never be lost.
1. Take care of yourself. Protect yourself from legal, financial, immoral and even emotional harm by not participating in any unethical behaviors. And remember, when you take care of yourself, you also protect your professional reputation as well as the standards and integrity of your particular profession.
2. Take care of your organization. Ethically, you should continually act in your company’s best interests. Remain true to your company’s code of ethics and conduct. Those pieces of paper can be your touchstones — they should leave no wiggle room for unethical behavior.
3. Take care of your boss or bosses. This is a professional relationship that merits all your skills, acumen and loyalty. But this loyalty is no longer blind or unconditional. Your boss is your professional partner and needs all your support and attention in maintaining an ethical workplace.
Managers and employees nowadays agree that they must view loyalty as a reciprocal commitment to help each other “do the right thing.” Both are aware of, and even hypersensitive to, their separate accountabilities, and both realize that no one gets to play the blame game anymore. Each can hold the other to higher expectations, and neither ought to expect the other to sacrifice himself. Loyalty now is something to be negotiated, not presumed.
Thus, there is only one way for management and employees to inoculate themselves against a loyalty crisis, and that is to start talking — now. The conversation is one that needs to take place on various levels and across groups — between bosses and employees, among management, and even at the board level.
I encourage you all to start talking about loyalty’s new limits and expectations in your organizations and to do so in such a way that will result in enhancing your mutual trust and respect. This is a conversation that must transpire long before a loyalty crisis occurs.
Bosses: Are your employees fully aware of your moral compass? Do they understand and revere your company’s ethical standards and values?
Staffers: Do you know where your boss stands on critical issues? If faced with a tough situation, can you unequivocally answer the question: “What would my boss want me to do here?”
Most employees today (at any level of responsibility) want to do the right thing. And together, your boss-employee partnerships and the new way of interpreting loyalty in the workplace can help each side keep the other out of court, hot water and harm’s way.
U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd said it best: “If your boss demands your loyalty, give him/her all your integrity. But if your boss demands your integrity, give him/her all your loyalty.”
About the author: Workplace ethicist Nan DeMars is president of Executary Services, an Edina-based ethics training, search and consulting firm. Her latest book is “You’ve GOT To Be Kidding! How to Keep Your Job Without Losing Your Integrity.” She can be reached at www.office-ethics.com.