"Male vs. Female: Who’s in Charge of Your Ethical Compass?"By Alice Darnell Lattal, Ph.D

In America today, there is continued concern that we have lost our ethical compass. While making it in business has been much admired, particularly about those who bring innovation and creativity to life, America’s infamous roster of those indicted for fraud continues to tarnish the workplace and its perceived potential for good. Historically, male executives inside our corporations have been in charge of the ethical compass. However, the number of women in leadership roles is gaining significant ground. As we strive to follow a more consistent true north compass, some have said, “Wait until the women are in charge”.

Are women more ethical than men? Do women behave differently than men when making ethical decisions? The truth is that women aren’t moral or ethical simply because they are born female. Dr. Carol Gilligan asserts that women do operate with a unique ethical perspective because of cultural conditioning. She states that men are more concerned with rules and justice, while women focus on caring relationships and are less likely to judge others. Good qualities but in no way related to whether women will do the right thing more often than men when in positions of power. Cultural conditioning makes females generally sensitive to others, good for a healthy framework in which to work, but it does NOT ensure that female actions will be any more ethical than that of individual men who are also just as likely to be sensitive to others.

Both genders share some common misconceptions about how to initiate and sustain ethics in the workplace. Whether a decision is ethical is not defined by expressed beliefs or a values statement, but by the impact of behavior—what actually happens as a result of a simple decision that “seems good at the time” but, in fact, may lead to many unintended consequences for saying and doing the wrong thing. The science of behavior looks closely at the relationship of consequences to actions in analyzing how “good people,” even ourselves, can do the wrong thing in spite of our hard work to be persons of integrity. We are all susceptible to that slippery slope, often unaware of the edge we are standing on.

A slip down an ethical slope begins with one small misstep. I doubt anyone who climbed the corporate ladder at Enron wanted to have jailbird on their impressive resumes. The challenge is to arrange decision criteria to promote and maintain doing the right thing for women and men. Forget how well intended you might be. In the end, doing and its effect is the ultimate measure of workplace ethics. Here are a few practical steps:


Step 1: Learn about behavior.

Observe objectively the effects of behavior, pinpoint the patterns you want, establish measures of success, apply feedback and consequences in a timely way and continuously evaluate. Be ready to change course.

Step 2: Make open dialogue possible.

The freedom to discuss strategy or tactics without negative repercussions (or grudges) is a sign of an ethical workplace. Get a business and behavior coach who is candid about changes needed if your organization suffers from a great deal of distrust.

Step 3: Live the example.

If it is unacceptable for your employees to slam doors or yell, then don’t do so yourself. When you use negative techniques to get what you want, it clearly suppresses dissent. Ask to be held accountable regularly.

Step 4: Establish an ethical scorecard for all processes, systems and structures of work.

Be alert to the unintended consequences of what is designed in production, quality and service targets and the words leaders use, carelessly or deliberately, throughout the organization that may not support the phrase: Be ethical first, then profitable if possible.

Step 5: Reward striving to be ethical.

Reward ethical effort that may or may not lead to an end goal with the same enthusiasm that you reward financial results. Reward the identification of wrong decisions—celebrate the whistle blower who comes to help. This can be done in a way that is beneficial to all without sacrificing desired outcomes or reinforcing complaints. Understand the goodwill in wanting the workplace to be the best it can be—at its cultural core.


This article was submitted by Alice Darnell Lattal, Ph.D., President and CEO, Aubrey Daniels International