Businesses and individuals alike talk a lot about character and ethics. Is it ethical to do this or that? Can we do such and so without being unethical…

I submit to you that if you have to ask, you’ve probably got your answer. Most things that are unethical FEEL unethical to most average people. My mom calls it the “New York Times” test – if what you are doing was posted on the front page of the New York Times, would you feel good about it, or would you be embarrassed?

The court of public opinion is a really crappy place to have your trial. A lot of times things that are unethical are perfectly legal. So it’s not a question of am I breaking the law. It’s simply a question of do I really want to take advantage of this situation and the other people involved? Would Jesus approve if he were in this meeting?

I’ve also heard it called the “sniff test.” If it smells fishy, it’s probably not ethical. If you feel the need to keep the facts concealed, it’s probably not ethical. If you’re doing the Texas two-step when people ask you about it, it’s probably not ethical.

Some people are more apt to feel shame than guilt. Either is a perfect test for this, however. If you feel guilty doing something, you shouldn’t do it. But the same is true with shame. If you do or WOULD feel shame if caught, you shouldn’t do it! Even if you have an over-developed sense of guilt like I do, you’ll still never go wrong steering clear of things that make you feel guilty. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you skip it? Probably nothing at all.

Software developers often release software with known bugs. Is it ethical? Well, if it affects the software’s ability to perform an essential function that you’re advertising AND you don’t tell people about it up front, then it’s definitely unethical. Companies often slow-pay their vendors even though they have the cash in the bank just so they can make their quarterly reports look better… is that ethical? Not one bit.

And VERY often, companies lie about their capabilities, their accomplishments, their ability to meet a deadline, their expertise, sometimes even their client lists. They will blatantly lie about things that a simple Google search would reveal to be a lie, and then they are shocked when they are called on it. If companies ran their marketing plans by Joe Sixpack, Joe would tell them they are scumbags and never buy another product from them.

Individuals are more likely to call it character than ethics. People with character won’t say one thing in one setting and something else in another. They would not say something to a third party that they wouldn’t say to that person’s face. People with character don’t judge others or assume they know enough to call someone else a “bad person” or the like. They don’t compare themselves with other people and decide another’s bad decisions mean they are worse people than them. They don’t lie, they don’t cheat.

In my personal journey of growth I have found that I’m more judgmental than I thought I was. And not about the types of things I would have assumed I was. I find myself saying “he or she is just a bad person” and the like. In some cases I might even be right, but I can’t really know for sure unless I get promoted to deity status. My lovely bride has been encouraging me not to make sweeping judgments of people just because they wronged me in some way. I think she’s right. Even the most depraved person on the planet has a soul and has infinite worth in God’s eyes.

Some things really are grey area. Sometimes you have to make a judgment call. Sometimes it really isn’t clear what would be ethical and what wouldn’t. But those cases are VERY rare. It’s almost always obvious. So next time you’re wondering if you should do something or not, err on the side of caution. You’d hate to fail the New York Times test. Especially if you don’t like shame, ridicule, and scorn.

Encouragement of the day: If you are doing battle with someone, personally or in business, and you haven’t manned up and been honest with them face to face… maybe you’ve even been talking behind someone’s back – take this opportunity to be real with each other. Go tell them what you think of them. Let them say what they think of you. You never know, you might just realize the chasm isn’t as big as you think. And you might realize it’s bigger than you think and never speak to them again. But who cares?

The truth shall set you free. I know it’s setting me free, and I must say – it’s a nice feeling.

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