The author, Deborah Long, will be presenting at the 2009 ASHI Leadership Training Conference in October.
It’s easy to blame moral poverty on other people. Today's headlines give us plenty of moral failures, from government officials to celebrated athletes to famous entertainers. By blaming others, we feel less responsible and less likely to act ethically ourselves. I call this tendency the “Doctrine of Relative Filth.” In other words, “I'm not so bad; there are other people out there who are worse.” In my profession — real estate — we always point to used car salespeople as ethical illiterates. Attorneys point to real estate agents. Doctors point to attorneys. And so on.
It’s easy to point the fingers of blame at others. What is more difficult is accepting responsibility for some of our profession's ills and taking action to remedy those problems.
What can licensees do to take responsibility and create a more ethical workplace and profession? Here are some suggestions:
1. Support tougher standards for obtaining professional licenses and for keeping them. Research on moral reasoning skills indicates that ethical judgment is related to education: that is, individuals who have more years of secondary education perform better on tests of ethical judgment. (Interestingly, education is much more strongly associated with mature ethical judgment than with chronological age. Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting more ethical.) Thus efforts to “raise the bar” by requiring more classroom hours in pre- and post-licensing courses may promote more ethical judgment among licensees.
2. Promote the discussion of ethics in professional meetings. Discuss and analyze transactions/events where licensees had problems solving ethical problems. Give this discussion special priority in these meetings by providing them early in the agenda. It’s also important to make ethics a topic of conversation at the dinner table at home.
3. Give recognition for civic contributions and de-emphasize promotions and publicity for financial achievement. Discourage the promotion of “top producer” and “million dollar sales clubs” and similar advertisements that emphasize financial success rather than other important individual or team contributions. Too many licensees are
encouraged to be successful only in financial terms. This is particularly true in industries where licensees are compensated on a commission basis. The public is often confused about the meaning of terms such as “million dollar clubs” and become cynical about an industry’s perceived obsession with income. Insurance companies have done much to restore the public's perception of them by promoting their contributions to charities such as United Way instead of the number of policies insurance salespeople and their firms sold.
4. Support the implementation of a regional or national ethics helpline and ombudsperson for your industry. Early attempts to implement ethics offices resulted in ethics “hotlines” where callers may have felt that they were turning in colleagues to regulatory agencies. A “helpline” provides callers opportunities to talk to neutral but expert individuals who assist callers in sorting through ethical aspects of their problems and refer them to appropriate resources for additional information. The expert would have no vested interest in the outcome of the problem except to help the individual make a mature, ethical decision.
5. Become an ethical mentor and role model. Of all the suggestions here, this one is the toughest. First, it requires an acknowledgement that we all have the power to influence others, and equally important, our colleagues, our friends, and our children are all learning from our conduct.
Second, the notion of being a role model forces us to be agents of change. As ethicist Thomas Lickona points out, having ethical will is a critical element in ethical conduct. Individuals who have this attittude believe that they can make a difference in the world around them. Sadly, many of us believe that what we do and what we say makes no difference at all. The authors of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” advise us otherwise.
They tell the story of a tourist walking along a starlit beach. The tide is out, and many starfish at the beach’s edge are exposed and dying. Coming from the opposite direction, another tourist is walking along the shore’s edge, periodically stooping over, picking up a starfish and flinging it back into the sea. As the two tourists approach each other, the first says, “What are you doing? There must be a million starfish here. You can’t throw them all back into the sea. You can't save them all. You can't possibly make a difference.”
The second tourist stops, bends over, picks up yet another starfish and throws it into the ocean and says, “Made a difference to that one.”
Our ethical conduct may not save the world, nor may it even save a small nation, but our ethical conduct and our willingness to be an example of moral courage and ethical will to others, may make a profound difference in the people with whom we work. After all, we do not learn our ethics from ethics teachers. We learn our ethics from people who have influence over us.
Copyright Deborah Long. Reprinted with permission.
Deborah H. Long is a licensed real estate instructor in North and South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Illinois, Maine, Alaska and Kentucky. She teaches licensing courses as well as specialty programs on ethics, cultural diversity, brokerage management and Internet research skills for real estate agents, appraisers, surveyors, interior designers and architects, state regulators, engineers and other licensed professionals. Visit her Web site at www.deborahlong.com.