Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor G. Richard Shell’s graduate course on business responsibility is peppered with students he calls “ethics refugees.” They’re young people who earned their bachelor’s degrees and landed great jobs, only to fall into an ethical or moral trap set by a boss, a co-worker, or the company culture. Inspired by their conflicts and wanting to help, Shell wrote The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values, Advance Your Career as a practical guide for handling sticky workplace situations. “Good people are put in bad situations, or they navigate to bad situations without knowing quite how they got there,” says Shell. “Then they have to decide how they’re going to respond.”
Ultimately, Shell wants anyone dealing with a moral dilemma at work to have no regrets — be a “person of conscience” and act accordingly. Importantly, this includes addressing small, everyday issues like honesty on expense accounts, not just flagging a major accounting scandal. “I deliberately chose that term, as opposed to the more alarming ‘whistleblower’ or anything that suggests that you have to be a moral hero or throw yourself over a cliff,” he says. “To be a person of conscience — to bring your conscience to work, to bring your values to work and make a commitment to acting on them — is an essential leadership skill.”
The most difficult part of the process, Shell believes, is “owning the conflict.” A worker sees a systemic problem and rationalizes inaction: Everybody does it. It’s a little thing. Don’t make trouble. “Of course, it’s when you don’t make trouble for yourself that you’ve just denied your values,” Shell says, noting a slippery slope. “The next time it happens, that rationalization you listened to the first time becomes easier to follow.”
Shell also recommends “leveraging the power of two.” That means finding an ally who can collaborate on a solution. “One of the biggest patterns I recognized in the stories that my students have shared is that when they’ve been unsuccessful at managing these conflicts in a way they’re proud of, it’s when they tried to do it alone,” he says.
As for retribution, Shell acknowledges the risks in pushing back. But he believes there’s a longer-term cost in slinking away from the problem. People of conscience bring their ethical standards to the office every morning, he says, so they can look themselves in the mirror at night. In addition, putting up with a toxic work culture inevitably takes its toll on well-being.
In the interest of avoiding working for such a company altogether, Shell suggests minding the metrics: When outcome-only metrics dominate other kinds of performance measures, such as customer satisfaction, there’s a higher risk for corruption. He also recommends seeking out former employees who can give honest accounts of the workplace. “If you want to stay healthy,” he says, “don’t go swimming in a dirty pond.”
Published as “Guided by Conscience” in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Wharton Magazine.