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Ask the Ethics Guy!

Memo to the Class of '09

To: Business School Graduates, Class of 2009

From: The Ethics Guy at

Re: Your Future

Congratulations! Your hard work and persistence have paid off, and you are now on your way to a successful career in business.

In the coming months you'll be getting a lot of advice from family, friends, and general well-wishers, but please allow me, an ethicist, to offer mine as well. After all, many of the biggest crises today are a result of unethical conduct in business, and in the most recent annual Gallup Ethics and Honesty poll, business executives, advertising practitioners, and stockbrokers were among the least-trusted professionals. By taking the following guidelines to heart, you'll let the world know that you are a person of honor and integrity and are someone clients and colleagues can trust.

1. Listen to the Whispers

Frances Hesselbein, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management) and former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, speaks of the importance of "listening to the whispers" you hear every time you're about to make a decision. She is referring not to the rumor mill but to the voice within that keeps you on the right track.

No matter what station you occupy within an organization—unpaid intern, midlevel executive, or president—you will be tempted to take the low road from time to time. Perhaps a client will ask you for a favor that goes against company policy. Maybe your boss will tell you to do something that is ethically or legally questionable. Possibly you'll be torn between covering up a mistake you've made or owning up to it. You can talk yourself into just about any decision, but if you follow Hesselbein's wise counsel, you'll make the best decision.

2. Keep Your Promises

It seems quaint, perhaps even naive, to talk about the importance of being true to your word, but trustworthiness isn't a nicety of doing business; it's a necessity. Clients are more likely to continue giving you their business and to recommend you when they know you mean what you say. Your company is more likely to keep you on board, to promote you, and to give you a raise when you consistently do what you say you will. You earn the respect of your colleagues when you honor the promises you make.

The contract you sign with the organization is a legal document, but at its most fundamental level it is a covenant, a form of promise-making. You promise to fulfill the responsibilities in your job description, and your employer promises to pay you, to provide a safe working environment and, one hopes, to provide health-care benefits, a retirement plan, and a generous amount of paid vacation.

As with any promise, if either party reneges, the pact is broken. You can't be expected to keep working if your employer stops paying you. Likewise, good employees know that being true to their word means taking the job description seriously, day in and day out.

You trust your friends to keep their word, and you justifiably end friendships when this is no longer the case. Don't your clients, colleagues, and boss deserve the same level of commitment from you that you ask of your friends?

3. Speak Up

At some point—probably more than once—in your career, you will encounter someone at work doing something he or she shouldn't be doing. When this happens, it will be very tempting to ignore it. Don't. If you discover shady goings-on at your company, you not only have a right to speak up, you have an ethical obligation to do so. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing," Edmund Burke said. No one likes confrontations, but the simple act of observing wrongdoing sometimes calls upon you to do or say something, even though it would be simpler to keep quiet. If Sherron Watkins, Cynthia Cooper, and Coleen Rowley hadn't taken action where they worked, the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and the FBI might never have been exposed.

4. Be a Force for Good.

Google's (GOOG) corporate motto, "Don't be evil," speaks to an ethical principle that applies to all of us: Do No Harm. But "don't be evil" doesn't go far enough. The real objective is to be a force for good. Applying your considerable knowledge and skills toward the service of others is what business—and life in general—ought to be about.

Imagine that you're on your deathbed, reviewing how you spent your life. If the most you can say is, "All right, maybe I was a bit selfish, but at least I never hurt anyone," would you feel you realized your potential as a human being?

5. Use the YouTube Test.

"Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see in a newspaper headline." So went the old-school advice for making the right choices. It's time for an update: "Avoid saying or doing anything you wouldn't want to have posted on YouTube, Facebook, or MySpace." Anything you say or do within the vicinity of a cell phone, Flip, or BlackBerry can become part of the public record, so it behooves you to act and speak cautiously, whether you're on or off the job.

The above guidelines are based on the five fundamental principles of ethics: Do No Harm, Make Things Better, Respect Others (Part 1), and (Part 2), Be Fair (Part 1) and (Part 2) and Be Loving . They provide a solid foundation for making the best decisions possible not just at work but at home, in your community, and everywhere else.

May you find much success in the next phrase of your life, and may that success come from your commitment to having the highest standards in all that you do.

Dr. Bruce Weinstein is the public speaker and corporate consultant known as The Ethics Guy. His new book, Is It Still Cheating If I Don't Get Caught?, (Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press) shows teens how to solve the ethical dilemmas they face. Follow Weinstein on Twitter at TheEthicsGuy. For more information, visit

Bruce Weinstein, PhD, is the author of Ethical Intelligence (New World Library, 2011) and host of "Ask the Ethics Guy!" on Bloomberg Businessweek's online management channel. He frequently gives keynote addresses on ethics and leadership to businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools across the U.S. Readers can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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