All of us have seen it by now- or at least it seems that way. The infamous smart phone video of a not-so-willing volunteer forcibly removed from the United Airlines flight due to what many employees have now described as a “rules-based culture” gone overboard. The rules in this case called for specific protocols that frankly did not make sense. Many of us may readily declare that something this shocking would never happen in our organizations. But ask yourself- is your organization’s culture that immune to set of ethics that may fly in the face of what’s moral? You may be surprised.
Before I get too far let me be clear I’m not for breaking the rules for breaking the rules sake. As someone who spent more than two decades in the military I’ve had a life-time of rule following- and in most cases for good reason. Rules, also known as “ethics”, govern much of what we do, at home and in our workplaces. While some do test the bounds of common sense, few test our very morals. Yet in these few circumstances breaking the rules is anything but immoral.
Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are certainly different. Per many scholarly definitions ethics refer to “rules provided by an external source”, such as codes of conduct in our workplaces. Morals refer to an “individual's own principles regarding right and wrong.” For those of you who’ve been life-long HR practitioners you’ve experienced the struggle between the two. At times, you’ve been labeled as the “policy police” –those who are driven by workplace ethics with little or no room for compassionate consideration of what may be morally correct. At other times, when you’ve “bent the rules” to do what you believe is morally correct you’ve put yourself at considerable risk, personally and professionally. How do we rectify this dilemma? First, through careful consideration we must close the gap between the two principles. Then, where the gap may still exist, we must empower our teams to question the rules, and their authority, when they are immoral. Easy, right? Hardly.
Ask yourself, when’s the last time you may have experienced a policy, procedure or workplace practice that just didn’t seem, right? What steps did you take? Did you question the rule, solicit a clearer understanding of its application, or somehow try to correct the situation? If you answered no- you’re by no means alone. We’d all like to believe we are champions of what’s right and willing to stand-up for it at a moment’s notice. But, it’s not that easy when your livelihood may be on the line. I’d venture to say that HR professionals are thrust into these situations as often as anyone else in the workplace. Daring to be unethically moral takes courage and conviction. However, in some cases it’s also good business sense- just ask United.