What do you think of "John?" He was unemployed for a while and eager to provide for his family. So he invested a chunk of his limited savings in a career counselor who wrote his résumé and cover letter and helped him craft answers that put the best possible face on his weak work history. And it worked: He got hired as a corporate sales rep. Wanting to be ethical, while John used sales tactics to close deals and rarely disclosed his products' weaknesses, he never lied, nevertheless met his sales quotas, and is now employed stably.
Most people would think John is a pretty good guy, and compared with many other people, he is. But might we want to aspire to a higher level of ethics?
A previous article, The Case Against Résumé Writers, argued that when someone hires a person to write his or her résumé and cover letter it is no more ethical than hiring someone to write a college application essay. Doing so is unfair to the applicants who did their own work as well as to the employer and co-workers and, in turn, to society. So John's ethical report card grade needs to be lowered because of that.
Now we turn to on-the-job behavior. Just because John didn't explicitly lie, was he ethical? Imagine you're the customer and that salespeople omitted key negatives about their products and used sales tactics to pressure you into buying. In terms of real-world impact, that's as unethical as if the salespeople had lied to you explicitly. Further, if you actually didn't need to buy anything, wouldn't you want the salesman to be ethical enough to say that? For example, if a car mechanic found that your brake pads still had plenty of life left, wouldn't you expect him to say so? Yet it's too rare that sellers, even career counselors, say, "You don't need to buy what I'm selling."
True, the approach presented in the previous paragraph causes salespeople to lose more sales, but the sales thus made are to customers who are, in fact, wise to purchase the products. That's ethical.
The good news is that it isn't difficult to find worthy products or services to sell, especially if the salesperson doesn't require a big-buck income. And living on less is made easier simply if you reject marketing's narrative that you'll be happier living a materialistic lifestyle; for example, driving a new status-mobile that ironically breaks down more than many less-expensive cars, and buying clothes that are expensive largely because they bear a status label. For example, one wonders why anyone would buy a $300 Coach purse for the privilege of becoming a walking billboard for the corporation? The Coach logo is plastered all over the purse.
Then there's the more foundational ethical question: Even if we do our job ethically, if we aspire to a high ethical standard, might we want to ask if our talents might do more good in some other pursuit? For example, assuming John wanted to use his sales skills, isn't an ethically loftier use of his workweek to be a fundraiser for, say, cancer research than to sell Georgia-Pacific's Angel Soft toilet paper versus Procter & Gamble's Charmin?
Finally, we can, of course, elevate our workplace ethics by treating people well. Amid the pressures, many employers don't even send rejection letters to applicants. Other employers don't praise employees lest it cause complacency or a request for a salary increase. Employees desiring promotions or fearing being laid off too often bad-mouth co-workers, withhold key information from them, etc. Suffusing your work and personal life with non-random acts of kindness helps ensure that your time on the planet yields the most good possible.
Indeed, might "aim to do the most good possible" be a simple yet helpful definition of ethics and of the life well-led?
The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here every Monday.