A few weeks before Bradley R. Agle turned 50, his daughter challenged him to a marathon.
“Have you seen those people who have just finished one?” asked BYU’s George Romney endowed professor. He had no intention of undertaking the run, but opted to train for a 15-mile Mt. Timpanogos hike to celebrate the milestone.
Agle prepared by walking, doing partial climbs up Mt. Timpanogos, and making other hikes. He says he was able to finish the challenge because he learned how he needed to train.
“You don’t just climb without thinking about it,” he said. Agle, also a professor in the Marriott School, applies the same idea of preparation to workplace integrity
“Climbing Mt. Timpanogos across snow fields might not be a good experience if you haven’t prepared for it. Likewise, if you haven’t planned to meet the challenges of ethics in the workplace, the experience might not be good. In fact, you might do things you wish you hadn’t done. You ought to be proactive and maintain strong ethics on the job.”
Agle spoke at a recent BYU alumni webcast, and shared five vital principles of ethics:
1. Engage in proactive behavior. This is essential for maintaining integrity. It takes deliberate and intentional preparation to preserve it.
2. Know your values. Take time to write them down. Describe your own thoughts about integrity, and keep them in a place where you will be constantly reminded.
3. Build a social structure that facilitates ethical behavior.
4. Provide consistent nourishment to mind and spirit.
5. Develop a reputation as an honest and ethical person. This can protect you from situations where you otherwise might get in trouble.
“Your own thoughts about morality, your own philosophy, and your own moral identity will influence the way you behave,” he said, “but the social structure around you will also influence your behavior. You need to update your values and goals periodically as you move along in life.”
Agle emphasized the need for spiritual and physical health sustenance. “This isn’t monthly or yearly. We need constant nourishment to body, mind, and spirit. It is the same with ethics. If we want to be a person of high integrity, it is not something we can think about once and we’re good forever.”
Even armed with the five strategies, Agle said, “Your ethics will be challenged. You aren’t going to manage to go through life avoiding issues. That is why you must know and review your values and commit to live them.”
He said that while most think they know their values, he finds that when he teaches various ethics cases, people are surprised with the dilemmas that emerge. The Marriott School has four levels for making ethical choices.
1. Be honest and have integrity, fairness, and respect for others.
2. Apply those values.
3. Develop the courage and intellectual savvy to do what is right.
4. Have a positive effect on others.
“We assume most BYU students come to campus with a core of integrity,” he said. “The way to really determine values, however, comes when they are put into practice. We give our students difficult cases, for example, such as one where honesty and loyalty are in conflict. They get an understanding of where their values are. They then must decide on behavior that is effective, is not going to get them fired, and in a way that does not destroy relationships.”
The model also goes beyond one’s personal integrity, “It’s not just about my own behavior, but it’s about being a leader who influences others for good,” Agle emphasized. “You are concerned not only about your own integrity but also the integrity of the people who work for you.”
Case: Riding a Fine Line
What Would You Do?
“Just keep doing business the same way you’ve been doing it. Don’t tell them anything has changed.” Such were direct instructions from the new CEO of your company concerning how you should conduct business with a longtime supplier that your company plans to quit using in a few months.
You are the manager for a bicycle manufacturing business that has annual revenues of $4 million. Your business is one strategic business unit within a diversified company with revenues of $100 million. Your new CEO has decided he wants to liquidate your unit and use the cash from that liquidation for other “more profitable” business opportunities. You currently have approximately $2 million in inventory. If anyone learns that your company will be discontinuing the bicycle line, the inventory will immediately lose half of its value. Retailers would have to discount the bicycles significantly if the line were discontinued.
You have been the primary contact with the major supplier of parts for your bicycles for many years. This supplier is based in a small town in Brazil, and it is a family-run business. When you started working with the company, it employed five people and was a supplier to several companies. Today it employs 28 people and provides a majority of its products to you and generates the majority of wealth for its small village. The company has been an excellent supplier. When you’ve had unexpected spikes in demand, the supplier has worked very hard to get you your needed parts as quickly as possible. After several of these spikes, and to serve you better, it began building inventory so it would always be able to meet your needs immediately. This has helped you to be profitable. You also began providing the supplier with historical sales figures to help it predict coming demand and have continued providing this information for several years.
Under the CEI’s plan, you will continue to manufacture bicycles for the next three months and then discontinue manufacturing and only sell bicycles until your inventory runs out. He does not want to inform the market in any way that you will be discontinuing the line. Thus you have been instructed not to inform the supplier. Of course, you realize and have explained to the CEO that this supplier will continue to build inventory tailored to your use that will be worthless if you don’t buy it. This will most definitely put this supplier out of business. However, if they supplier knew that you would only be using about three more months of inventory, it would immediately stop production and look for others who could use its manufacturing capacity—thus surely tipping off the market to your impending change. The supplier could probably find other businesses, but at the very least, it wouldn’t spend all that time and money building worthless inventory. You feel you have a responsibility to tell the supplier that you will no longer be buying from it. But your CEO says, “We have no legal contract with the company. It’s their problem, not ours.”
You have tried to come up with several other possible scenarios to help out the company while you make this change, all of which have been rejected by the CEO. He is adamant about his position. You also have a non-disclosure agreement with your company preventing you from disclosing any important company information. You will continue to be the contact with this company until all business has been completed with them. You have always thought of yourself as a very ethical person. Now you ask yourself, “What would an ethical person do in this situation?”
Copyright 2009 Bradley R. Agle, PhD