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Respect: The Starting Point for Good Ethics

By Mark S. Putnam

Every kid has heard the statement, "Respect your elders!" Of course your mom was not only referring to grandparents and uncles but to your bossy older cousin who sometimes picked on you. It didn't matter what the cousin did, "respect your elders" was the mandate to show a certain level of respect for someone based on age no matter what. As a kid it seemed absurd.


As you got older and smarter, you discovered the principle that said, "Respect must be earned." If someone didn't earn it or deserve it, they didn't get it. That took the pressure off. Your whole view of respect changed. Now there were strings attached. As a result you developed two categories for respect: things you respected and things you didn't.
From then on it was easy and convenient to simply put things in the "no respect" category and let your feelings be your guide. Unfortunately, as time went by, rather than making life easier, it got harder. Moral ambiguity and ethical gray areas seemed to be everywhere.


Herein lies the critical connection between ethics and that unconditional respect that prevented you from kicking your cousin in the shins when you thought he deserved it. What your mom was really saying was that you must show everyone and everything a certain level of respect. Respect is more than a feeling but an obligation. You were to respect your friends and your enemies. You were to respect your own toys and your neighbor's.


In the big picture, you were being taught that respect equals good behavior and good behavior equals respect. Ethics requires respect. One cannot exist without the other. Ethical success depends on understanding the profound impact that respect has on your ethics and character.


We choose between right and wrong in ethical dilemmas all the time. It can be frustrating and confusing to continually focus on the minutia of the problem and the gray areas. To get relief from the moral maze, approach ethics from the respect point of view. Make the connection between respect and ethics. It will give you a fresh perspective and deeper understanding of what is really going on around you.


For example, every employee has struggled with the issue of appropriately using company time. Whether it's showing up late or using company time for personal business, there is an infinite number of rationalizations and excuses to ethically justify what we want.


Instead, look at the issue from the respect point of view. Are you being respectful of the company when you spend company time checking your eBay auctions or sneaking out early? No matter what seemingly legitimate excuse you have, seeing it as a respect issue takes the wind out of your rationalization sails.


Is it respectful to abuse company equipment because it's not yours? Is it respectful to coworkers to make them clean up your messes or finish your unfinished work? Is it respectful to use inventory for your own use because no one will miss it? The question of respect applies to almost every kind of workplace ethical problem. In most cases it shines a bright light on the deeper principle of the issue and leaves our justifications behind.


Just as conditional respect has its problems, so too does unconditional respect if not fully understood. Unconditional respect means that we maintain a certain level of respect for the rule of law, the authority above us, the people we encounter, and property with which we come in contact. Just because we respect these things does not mean that we do not stand up for injustice or fight a good fight. You will have adversaries in life. A time will come when we will be handed the short end of the stick or will be taken advantage of.


Understand that even in the heat of a battle, respect plays a critical role. In fact, respect can even be a secret weapon. There's nothing better to disarm an angry customer or harassing supervisor than to respond with respect and professionalism. There's no better way to oppose an unjust rule or change the system than to communicate your firm opposition with respect.


Showing respect is the quickest route to good ethics. What your mother was really telling you about elders was that respect would take you far in life. She was telling you to start now, even with your annoying cousin and someday you will understand how to solve your problems the right way. Of course now that you're grown up it's not too late to demonstrate how annoying younger cousins can be.


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