Get Your Ethics in Order Before They Bring You Down – #SHRM19



I was a little surprised to see Chuck Gallagher enter the stage in an orange jumpsuit. I have actually known him for a few years, but I never knew he was in prison. It was a reminder that many times we don’t know people’s backgrounds and life stories. They influence a person’s behavior.  Right in line with SHRM19’s initiative for second chances, Chuck Gallagher’s presentation on ethics was spot on. 

If anyone in the audience needed credibility, Chuck’s story of being incarcerated certainly gave him that. As a society we like to blame a person’s poor choices on poverty and drugs too often. Here was an educated, white man, of good means, telling his story and giving insights into how he came to choose this path. 

Beyond his story he shared what he learned. Now he is sharing that knowledge so your company can know what to look for and how to handle a situation that affects the integrity of an organization and all of its people. 

His main theme was, every choice has a consequence. Seems logical, even obvious, but when you are making poor choices, this logic is nowhere to be found.  Just remember when you were a teenager.

When it comes to leadership’s role in the quest for transparency and honesty, the best defense is a good offense. Chuck knows that HR tends to focus on rules when it comes to ethics, but says the rules are just part of the equation. In a workplace no one would suspect Chuck, which is why he got so deep into his own trouble.  Businesses need to look at what motivates people to be unethical and deal with that, the root of the problem.

A lot less people raised their hands when Chuck asked how many people would voluntarily break the law than when he asked how many people had driven over the speed limit. For many of us it is ok to break the rules if we see it as socially acceptable, like driving too fast. It is a matter of degree and boundaries are different for everyone. As he explained it, it’s that moving boundary line that gets someone in trouble.

Most of the time, ethical lapses do not start big. It is more common to start with what appears to be an insignificant blind spot. Something that may not even enter your consciousness as wrong. The beginning might be triggered by emotions, financial issues, health concerns and/or relationship problems. This is what moves ethical people to unethical actions.

There are three components to ethical lapses:

  • Need
  • Opportunity
  • Rationalization

Take speeding for example.  You have a need to get somewhere at a certain time. The opportunity arises with no traffic and your rational is that everybody does it.

Now you don’t think about these individual parts.  This behavior is on automatic pilot.  When an action is repeated with no consequences it becomes normal behavior. 

As an organization you have to be asking why someone would break the rules.  If you have an ethical breach in your company, you will be asked these questions:

  • What did you know?
  • When did you know it?
  • What did you do about it?

To be prepared. here are a few questions to help facilitate what your business model needs:

  • Do you have a written policy?
  • How do you communicate it? (this is key and often ignored once the policy is written)
  • If you polled employees would they say it is enforced?
  • If the answer is no, you just lost your case
  • Has there been any enforcement of the ethics policy?

What are you willing to do to help keep your employees between the ethical lines? What are you willing to do to keep your company from having to answer to owners, shareholders or a government agency? Assume the truth will ALWAYS come out. Believe that not taking action can be as detrimental as making the wrong decision

Chuck’s sage advice is, “Make sure you have an ethical training program for your workplace BEFORE you need it.”

For more about Chuck Gallagher, visit



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