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Ethics in Action: The Courage to Stand Up

By Mark S. Putnam

Standing up for your ethical principles takes courage. Courage is the ability to face danger, difficulty, uncertainty, or pain without being overcome by fear. When you see something happening in the workplace that just doesn’t seem right do you have the courage to stand-up and do something? What are you afraid of? Retribution, disapproval, your image, damaged relationships, or simply the unknown? Courage is about setting aside your fear and taking action for the good of yourself or someone else.


A firefighter courageously runs into a burning building because he or she is protecting life and property. Part of his courage comes from his duty to his job and community but the rest comes from a courageous instinct that kicks in. Although most ethical dilemmas at work aren’t a matter of life and death, the principle of standing up to protect someone’s rights as well as basic principles of honesty, moral virtue, and ethical behavior is a noble cause.


We need to have a sense of moral justice in our approach to unethical behavior so it disturbs something deep within our character when we see it.. But simply being offended by wrongdoing is not enough. Courage comes in confronting those feelings inside and taking action.


A courageous person is that one individual in a crowd of onlookers who actually steps out and does something. A young man named Kristopher Kime who was beaten to death while trying to rescue a woman during the Seattle Mardi Gras riots showed enormous courage. He probably had the same feelings of fear, shock, hesitation, and anger that you would experience in the midst of a street riot. But he did something extremely courageous by stepping out from the stunned crowd to save an innocent life. When you stand up for principles of goodness and virtue it may feel like a mob attack.


Human nature tells us that if nothing is ever said or done about bad behavior it will continue or get worse. Allowing things to “slide” will eventually take everything else for the same ride. Ethics without the component of courage to stand-up for it keeps it in the realm of heady philosophy and out reality.


So, what does courage look like from 9 to 5 in the office? There are no crowds of onlookers or T.V. cameras to record your courage or pass judgment. It's usually just you and customer, boss, or vendor face to face or on the other end of the phone. The first level of action is your initial reaction. Saying something like, “Sorry, I just can’t ethically do it that way, but I think another way would be…” puts on the brakes right away and points to an alternative solution. This is a courageous, ethical reflex. In order for this quick response to become a natural reflex, you need to be prepared in your mind and character and be ready for a response.


The second level is to approach the person with whom you have a problem. This is NOT easy. Most of us don’t naturally confront people. To most of us, the courage to actually go up and talk face-to-face takes a superhuman Kristopher Kime level of courage. Your voice trembles, stomach hurts, beads of sweat roll down your face. It certainly FEELS like a life or death struggle. But remember, courage is about facing difficulty without being overcome by fear.


The third level of action is to find help. Especially when someone else’s rights or property are at play you need to take things to the next level. Rather than think of yourself as a “tattle-tale,” consider yourself a courageous “change-agent for good.” Again, this is not easy. Be ready. Having someone fight your battle for you may be harder than fighting it yourself. You still have to face your coworkers AND you lose most (or all) control over the path to a solution.


Principles of decency, integrity and what is good and right are not to be treaded upon lightly. Ethics is more than just following a set of rules, it is a part of our deeply-held belief system that makes-up the core of our character. It is worth protecting. It is worth stepping out in courage and making personal sacrifices. Whether you think you share the courageous qualities of a hero or not…rest assured that you do.


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