According to many, we live in an era of twilight ethics and little white lies. Listen to the language of the workplace and you hear:

  • “What does it matter if I leave work early? Everybody does it;”
  • “They owe it to me,” and
  • “I’m not going to tell him. If he can’t figure it out on his own, it’s his problem.”

Walk past the outgoing mail stack and you notice employees mailing their personal documents with company postage. Watch the company’s back entrance and you see   reams of paper, boxes of file folders and packets of colored magic markers leaving—for kids’ projects—and it’s not the lowest paid employees taking these items, it’s the managers making high salaries

Some of your managers and coworkers live the life of the little white lie, arguing that “it doesn’t matter.”

What about you? Are you tempted to do what you see others doing? Careful. You can’t afford to travel the road of “follow the crowd.” What works doesn’t equal what’s right. What you see all around you is nothing more than good people and average people de-sensitizing themselves to incremental dishonesty.

The cost?—Their ethical muscle grows soft. They shave the truth so often they cut into themselves.

Even when other people do the wrong thing, even when you can get away with less, even when the wrong thing seems like no big deal, it is.

What have they forgotten? Remember the song, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later?” Each person eventually pays the price for ethical violations. That person in your office who uses the company’s postage machine for personal mail?  S/he sells him/herself short—because if s/he really looks at what he’s doing, it’s nothing other than stealing. S/he prices his/her integrity at 55 cents. Your actions color both how you see you and how others see you. How can you or anyone else feel proud of the ends or of what they attain when they’re ashamed of the means used toward that end?

You do need to sweat the small stuff to react to what doesn’t smell right. You make ethics simple by doing the right thing every day. It’s your small decisions, not just your big ones, that equal ethics.

In your workplace, your greatest challenge may be ethical debt by association. You may witness unethical acts and yet choose to look the other way. You may realize your coworker makes personal calls on the company bill or company time or takes home quantities of company supplies, and you’ve decided it’s none of your business. You may have told yourself that perhaps your standards are too high.

They’re not. Although the right thing isn’t always an absolute, someone who targets honesty can always establish what is right.

What happens to you if you do the right things yourself “but look the other way?” You allow incremental corruption. Failure to speak out really means “you’re in this together.” There is no “honor among thieves.” There is only the question of “what next” and what price you eventually pay when you allow your entire organization to slide into ethical debt.

If you ok cheating by your silence, you take a personal risk. That coworker who takes software home? Tomorrow, she’ll take the earrings from your drawer or your Pepsi from the refrigerator. She doesn’t see it as stealing. In her mind “it’s no big deal” and “everyone does it.”

She’s silenced her conscience. Let a fellow manager lie to his/her boss about whether a late report resulted from his/her error or his assistant’s delay and perhaps tomorrow s/he’ll lie about you.

On Saturday I interacted with a company’s employee who wore a loose mask that kept slipping down. Twice I told her she needed to pull her mask up. “Oh, I’ll tighten it,” she said. When I looked at her mask, I realized it a loose mask, and not one that had tightening straps.

Sure enough, when she thought no one saw her, she later let it slip below her nose. When I thought back to when I’d first seen her, in her organization’s lobby, her mask seemed appropriate.

That’s when I realized she’d figured out how skate by the rules, enough in line that none of her managers would notice. If she’s asymptomatic, she might have infected me. Does she care? I was simply one of many customers that she’ll never see again. I’m guessing she thinks it didn’t matter.

Has someone asked you—perhaps simply by his or her actions—to compromise what you know to be right? Don’t take the risk.

Note: this article originally appeared in Solutions. © 2014, revised 2020, Lynne Curry is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, and “Solutions”, (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Send your questions to her at or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

One thought on “Twilight Ethics

  1. Lynne–these are strong statements and reminders of why the “little”
    things count and how ethics in the workplace need to be throughout employees’ and managers’ activities and actions. Thanks for this!

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