Ethics, according to Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary, is "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation."  It is "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group," and "a guiding philosophy." Basically it means knowing right from wrong. And thus to be ethical is to act accordingly.

There have been so many scandals in corporate America that Forbes, which once published "The Corporate Scandal Sheet," stopped updating it back in September of 2002. During that year there were 22 major scandals by large, well-known companies. These included Arthur Anderson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AOL Time Warner, Adelphia Communications, Enron, Halliburton, Kmart, Merck, Tyco, Xerox, WorldCom, and Qwest. Most of these involved billions of dollars, and started an outcry for new standards and oversight.

I was thinking about this as I was driving to work the other day. I was driving the speed limit of 40 mph through an Interstate construction area. There was a sign telling people that it was a state law to turn on their headlights in construction areas, and another saying that fines were doubled. Everyone was passing me, and not just slowly. Most had been going 70 MPH or faster back when the speed limit was 55, and they had not slowed down for the construction. No one had his or her lights on.

Here was a clear situation where the rules were out there for all to see. Standards were set and accountability was posted. Yet no one was complying. Were these people all corporate accountants? No. They were teachers, housewives, secretaries, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, doctors, dentists, - all ordinary citizens. Most, if not all, of these folks were probably outraged at what happened in these major corporate scandals. But if being ethical means adhering to standards of right and wrong, all of these people were as guilty as the Enron executives of being unethical.

The speeders would argue that there is a big difference between going 30 mph over the posted speed limit and covering up billions of dollars of losses. Would these people steal $1 but not $5,000? I am reminded of the story of an older man who boarded an airplane and was seated next to a beautiful young woman. Neither spoke until after the flight was airborne. Then the older man turned to the young woman and asked her politely, "Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?" The woman is shocked and remains quiet for a few minutes, before saying that she would. All is quiet for a minute, and then the gentleman asks, "Will you sleep with me for $10?" She angrily replies, "Absolutely not! What do you think I am?" To which he responds, "We've already established that. Now we are discussing price."

Ethics should not be a matter of degree, and therein lies the problem. Too many people have creeping ethical standards. I'm sure the accountants and executives, when they were back in college, would have considered unthinkable the actions they eventually committed. But 30 years later they were committing them. Over time, repeated lapses in small ethical matters lead to larger and larger ones, until we have major scandals of unthinkable scale. 

A colleague of mine did a survey in a business law class where each student was given a scenario in which he or she is a new employee working in accounts receivable. The boss comes and says that XYZ corporation is 120 days delinquent, but to list it as only 30 days since a 120 day delinquency would make both companies look bad. The professor has each student say what he or she would do and why? Seventy percent of these business student said they would do what the boss said. Thirty years from now, one or more of these students may well be covering up a 90 million dollar delinquency instead of a 90-day delinquency.

In my lecture on organizational ethics I put the students in the following situation: You are at a friend's house, but your friend has stepped out for fifteen minutes. While you are waiting, you notice a box of cookies open on the kitchen counter. You are very hungry. Would you eat one? Would you eat two? Would you eat the entire box? How many cookies would you eat before thinking, "Hey, this isn't right?"

Essentially what the students realize is that, to most people, ethics is a matter of degree, and that too often people's standards change as the behavior is repeated over and over. How fast can you go beyond the speed limit before you don't feel right about it? When you learned to drive, you probably didn't speed much at all. But then you became comfortable with driving, and you saw others exceeding the speed limit, so why not. A veteran of the Korean War once told me, "I always abhorred the idea of killing someone, and the first time I ever killed someone, it was very traumatic for me. But after a while I got used to it and eventually tried to kill as many as I could."

Creeping ethical standards is how people become alcoholics, drug addicts, thieves, prostitutes, murders, and corporate cheats. How many cookies would you eat?