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“When walking along the edge of the ethical ocean, don’t let your knees get wet”

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Jun 25, 2015 • Eric Morgenstern • Blog

Thought Leadership



“When walking along the edge of the ethical ocean, don’t let your knees get wet.” This was the answer I gave the panel of very accomplished practitioners when asked how I define ethics as part of my “test” to get into to the PRSA College of Fellows. It worked. I was elected back in 2001.

Nearly 15 years later, it’s still true.

There are very few scenarios where murder, stealing and adultery can be justified as proper ethical choices, but most of the decisions we make each day aren’t quite that simple. For example, how many hours do we actually bill for a track-time project that took longer – or not as long – as we initially thought? Which employee gets to work on the cool, new client? Do we work for a division of ABC Company, even though we don’t fully embrace everything they do? And the list goes on and on.

Ethical dilemmas are common in our daily business. How we manage these choices sets the tone for how we and our organizations operate. Throughout my more than 35-year career, I have accumulated dozens of real-world ethical case studies from my personal experiences. These stories range from the time a job candidate sent me a dozen long-stemmed red roses with her follow-up note (she did not get the job), to learning how to work with colleagues who I’d seen steal, cheat and lie (I left that job pretty quickly), to guiding clients to embrace transparency (not easy for some businesses, but always worth it in the long-term).

Back to the ethical shoreline. Unlike simple binary choices, most ethical business decisions are much more like a shoreline – with a small area that’s both wet and dry, depending on the exact circumstances. So, when working through those ethical questions, don’t wait until your mouth is barely above water. Once your toes, feet and ankles get wet, it’s probably time to step back safely onto shore.

How do you establish your own ethical code of conduct? Is every decision based on “situational ethics,” or do you believe there are straightforward rules that should be followed in every circumstance?

Do you always do the right thing, even if nobody is watching? Can you respect the person you see in the mirror every morning? What would your Mom do?

While there are no simple answers, don’t let your knees get wet.

Onward and upward.