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Would you ever steal the office stapler?

Friday, March 4, 2016 - 14:46

It's been a tough week. The project you've been putting extra time into has fallen through and your manager hasn't provided the support you are looking for.

Then, you see it: the office stapler. It's unguarded - no one would know if it disappeared - and there are plenty more in the store cupboard. The question is, in that week when you feel your boss owes you, do you steal the stapler?

"When it comes to ethics, we think it's a test of our moral identity, which makes us more emotional."

The ethics of the stapler

This question of whether or not to steal items from the office cuts to the very heart of the ethical dilemmas that come with being a decision-maker within an organisation. While we often rationalise these indiscretions (in the case above, the feeling that you are owed something by your employer), they also reflect much more deeply held attitudes to the workplace.

This point was raised by Mary Gentile from Babson College in Massachusetts. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Ms Gentile highlighted how easily it is to rationalise discretions in the workplace.

 "When it comes to ethics, we think it's a test of our moral identity, which makes us more emotional, less effective, and vulnerable to self-deluding," she said.

"If something happens and you get that feeling in your gut that something's dodgy, a lot of pre-emptive rationalisations come in." 

It's also important to recognise the range of different issues that can arise from a stapler being stolen. While choosing to steal the stapler is one indiscretion, what if you witness a colleague or a subordinate who is light-fingered around the stationary, do you flag it with a superior? What if the stapler thief is your own manager?

Faced with these knotty questions, and the difficult conversations that come with them, the only answer is to take a critical look at your own approach to ethics in the workplace.

Ethics for managers

While these ethical dilemmas will face every employee in some form or another, managers in particular need to be thinking about their own beliefs and how they would respond in a stapler-style situation.

According to the most recent National Business Ethics Survey from the Ethics and Compliance Initiative in the US, managers were the most common source of professional misconduct, accounting for 60 per cent of all cases. Senior managers in particular ranked highly, responsible for 24 per cent of incidents. This underscores how easy it can be for those in management roles to make unethical decisions.

Even if you would never steal the stapler, ask yourself: What conditions would make you do it?

While these incidents are clearly more common among managers, the implications of this activity will be organisation-wide. For managers, it's crucial to be modelling those same behaviours that other workers should be emulating.

Mrs Babson also suggested practising how you would approach an ethical dilemma. Even if it's never crossed your mind to steal the stapler, ask yourself: What conditions would have to be like to actually make you steal it? Understanding how you approach these ethical dilemmas at an abstract level can help you to make an ethical decision that isn't coloured by your emotions.

This step can also help you to spot those rationalisations that people rely on in emotionally charged situations to excuse behaviour that we know is wrong. Statements like "if I don't do it, someone else will" and "everyone else does it" were cited in the book Business Ethics by Marianne Jennings as examples of these rationalisations that are often used to excuse unethical behaviour. Identifying these is a crucial step in ultimately preventing unethical behaviour.

There are also formal options that managers can pursue, such as leadership short courses, that might help them better tune their own approach to decision-making.

Ethical dilemmas like the stapler aren't going anywhere. But rather than fear the office stationary, managers need to be up-front and actively engaging with the ethical responsibilities that come with their role.