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Personal and Professional Ethics — Are They the Same?

As Seth sat back to enjoy the half-hour drive, he noticed the cab driver was listening to a talk-radio show. It was an election year, and the discussion on the radio was surrounding a candidate who had confessed to some indiscretions in his personal life. Apparently he had an affair and ­hadn’t been paying taxes on a housekeeper he recently hired.

From the backseat, Seth could hear the cab driver mumbling about what he was hearing on the radio. He looked at the cab license hanging on his visor and noted the driver’s name was Barry. Barry looked at Seth in his rearview mirror and said, “Can you believe this? This bucket-head seems to be more concerned with what’s going on in this guy’s personal life than what he’s going to do when he’s elected. I just don’t get it.”

It was a local race, and Seth ­wasn’t familiar with the candidate, but he was curious about Barry’s comment. So he asked him, “What is it that you don’t get?”

“I don’t understand why everyone is so concerned with this guy’s personal life. What he does in his personal life is none of my business. I’m just concerned with how he does his job.”

Barry was not the first person to ever express this opinion to Seth. In fact, throughout much of his young life, Seth had heard many people attempt to separate their personal life from their professional life. While Seth had no desire to disrupt his pleasant cab ride to the hotel, his need to hear more from Barry took over.

“Barry, let me ask you a question,” Seth started. “Do you believe someone can lack integrity in his personal life, but suddenly have integrity in his professional life?”

“Absolutely,” Barry responded. “If he tells me he can, then I believe him!”

In this portion of the fable from my book Engaged Leadership: Building a Culture to Overcome Employee Disengagement, Seth learned about the importance of character from this cab driver named Barry. Barry seemed to think someone can lack integrity in his personal life, but still have integrity in his professional life. While there may be many people who share Barry’s opinion, Seth was not one of them, and neither am I. In fact, I believe there is no way to separate what you do in your private life from what you do in your professional life when it comes to character. You either have character or you don’t. Period. You can’t turn it on and off.

Every day you are faced with a myriad of options and opportunities. You make decisions regarding these options and opportunities based on a set of values, and if you don’t have those values in place in your personal life, then you certainly don’t have them in your professional life.

This leads me to the whole idea of business ethics. From time to time I will get a call from someone asking if I can do a program for their company on the topic of business ethics. With the number of high-profile corporate scandals, many companies want to ensure they keep their name off the front page of the newspaper. I certainly see the problem of ethics in the workplace, but I do not believe it is an issue of business ethics. Why? Because businesses don’t make decisions—people make decisions.

Leadership expert and best-selling author John C. Maxwell says it best in his book, There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics: Discover the One Rule for Making Decisions. In the book, Maxwell observes: “One of our problems is that ethics is never a business issue or a social issue or a political issue. It is always a personal issue.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

The leadership of any company or organization is based on the strong character of the individuals running the organization. Too many leaders today believe if they have the characteristics that make up a good leader, then character ­shouldn’t be an issue. However, I maintain that it ­doesn’t matter how good you are at the mechanics of leadership if the people in your organization question your character.

Employees watch their leaders much more than leaders think they do. Quite often they are looking for congruency in what we say and what we do. If we say family values are important, but we go to happy hour and begin flirting with a married coworker after enough cocktails to blur our vision, we have shown a lack of congruence in what we say and what we do. If we say that spending time with loved ones is important, but we work 14 hours a day and most weekends while leaving family members at home alone, we have shown a lack of congruence in what we say and what we do. If we say honesty is an important value, but we ask an employee to lie to a customer by telling him we’re out of the office because we’re not prepared to speak with him, we have shown a lack of congruence in what we say and what we do.

I firmly believe that no one wakes up in the morning and says, “I wonder what I can do today to be unethical.” But with the desire to achieve a high level of business success, many people will make unethical decisions based on their desire to get ahead. I suppose we can call this “convenience ethics,” by making our decisions based on what is convenient (or profitable) at the time rather than on what is right.

And remember, people are watching your every move. What are they learning about your character?

Clint Swindall

© 2015 Clint Swindall — Clint is the president & CEO of Verbalocity, Inc., a personal development company with a focus on leadership enhancement. For information about how he can enhance employee engagement in your organization, please visit, or contact him directly

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