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"Mad Men" shows the evolution that's gone on in the workplace. The cast, from left, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jared Harris, Vincent Kartheiser, Jon Hamm, Robert Morse and Elisabeth Moss.

Frank Ockenfels, AMC

'Just following orders' is no defense

  • Article by: KIM ODE
  • Star Tribune
  • April 25, 2012 - 2:42 PM

It seems that few weeks -- or even days -- pass without a fresh headline detailing someone's ethical lapse. Bernie Madoff, Tom Petters, Amy Koch, Enron execs and now Best Buy's CEO all have faced allegations of misconduct.

With the increased frequency, and scrutiny, the landscape of the innocent bystander has changed, says Nan DeMars, president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, a consulting firm that does ethics training for clients worldwide. (Her website is www.office-ethics.com.) Her latest book is "You've GOT to Be Kidding! How to Keep Your Job Without Losing Your Integrity" (Wiley, $24.95). We asked her how people can maintain their moral codes at work, whether cheating is on the rise, and what to say when someone opens a conversation with, "Can we talk?"

Q Charges of ethics violations can catch us by surprise, given that the accused often are leaders in a community. How can a person behave one way on the job and another way in their personal lives?

A I don't think anybody gets up in the morning and says, "I'm going to do something unethical today." It's more like, "I'm going to borrow from here just to get by this once," and then stuff happens. You hear the word "compartmentalize" a lot today, and I think people can do that, can be two different people. But you can't sustain it. Eventually, you are going to crash.

Q Companies aren't supposed to retaliate against whistleblowers, yet you write that employer retaliation became the leading category of complaints filed by workers with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year. Is it so wrong to look the other way if it means being able to keep your job?

A The whistleblower chapter was the most difficult chapter I've ever written because I believe everyone should do the right thing. And I believe many people instinctively do the right thing when confronted by an ethical dilemma.

But when you blow the whistle and put your foot out there, I know your life will change. I tell people to first exhaust all reasonable possibilities of working within the system before taking that step. Then think of it more as helping the company than outing a bad guy.

Q What about workers who learn that they are viewed as complicit in a deceit? It seems harder these days to claim that you were just following orders. But what if you were?

A I developed my Ethical Priority Compass to help people figure out how to proceed. The most important element is to take care of yourself, because no one else is going to take care of you. You can't just say, "My boss told me to do this." Those days are gone.

So consult an attorney, your accountant. Then, protect the company -- because without a company, you really won't have a job. Then, take care of your supervisors. People think it's not their job to keep their bosses out of trouble, but it is. You have to step up and speak up.

Q College students are cheating more than ever, with the justification that everybody does it. When they enter the workforce, are you concerned that our moral compasses will spin out of whack?

A No, but I think that there's a pride in the company that develops only after time and experience. That's why people with high ethical values need to be upfront about sharing those values to demonstrate that no, everyone doesn't do it.

Your question raises another issue, that of workplace security. I believe that today's kids are as savvy as Bill Gates and as naive as Bambi. Not all of them appreciate that every time they press the "send" button, they may be putting the company in jeopardy, and not only the company, but themselves. There really is no such thing as e-mail privacy.

Q You mentioned how "Mad Men" provides some teachable moments, that maybe we've come farther than we think.

A I think "Mad Men" shows the evolution that's gone on in the workplace. I know I watch it and think, "Was life really like that?" and I know that it was. There was very much this blind loyalty, and the secretaries had no protection.

Now more companies have ethics policies in place. Bosses are opening their doors and asking employees to share their concerns, and are responding to them. I mean, who would not want to head off a train wreck?

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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