Admit it. We sit back, horrified by unethical actions at big corporations such as Enron and WorldCom -- which is understandable, considering the circumstances. But what about you? Have you ever falsified records and then justified your action because "it'll help all parties involved"? When your immediate superior tells you to take the gift a client sent you, despite company policy against accepting gifts, is your boss in the wrong? Or are you wrong for listening to the boss?

What about the tiny things, such as taking office stationery home for your children to use when they play "teacher."

Okay, that last one is picayune compared with what officials at Enron and elsewhere stand accused of, but perhaps our actions, tallied together, can lead to larger issues, like those at WorldCom or Tyco International or Global Crossing or . . . you get the idea.

Little infractions can lead to larger breaches in ethics -- and so gradually that we don't realize how bad things have become.

What does our own little pushing of the ethics envelope do to our organizations, and to ourselves?

There are many fine lines to be drawn at work, and many of those we cross every day. It's difficult to figure out when stretching the rules is okay. How do we know? And when it's a seemingly little thing, should we even take notice?

Yes, says Lee WanVeer, director of advisory services at the Ethics Resource Center, one block from the White House.

Companies and employees are breaking rules all over the place. The 2001 National Business Ethics Survey, conducted that WanVeer's organization, found that 30 percent of employees observe others violating the law or their organization's standards. Twelve percent of respondents see co-workers who break rules, steal, commit fraud and lie to employers.

Although "they aren't always the huge headline types of things," WanVeer said, "it is the small things that can become commonplace that create a culture of acceptance in the name of expediency or customer service. But that can lead to larger infractions, which was the case at WorldCom and Enron."

One common issue in offices everywhere, said WanVeer, is gift-taking. Many companies have a policy about accepting gifts, but then, one day, an employee is in a situation where a deal could be lost, or a client could be insulted, if the employee does not accept the gift. "In your mind, this is a good reason to break the rule," WanVeer said. But this is the time to disclose the situation to your boss. That way, your superiors know what you are facing and why, and they can address it. If you don't disclose, he said, "it hurts you and creates another link in the chain of small events" that lead to an unethical workplace.

Some infractions at work are not so small, but the people involved have a way of justifying the practice anyway. One local employee remembers that when working at an interior design firm in Florida, his bosses cheated artists out of cash, justifying the practice as good for the organization as a whole -- and good for the artists, because selling the art exposed their work to the public.

The company was supposed to buy original art at one price, then mark it up for clients and split the difference with the artists. But several of this person's bosses would tell the artists that paintings were for their own homes, so the artists would not ask for the money from the markup.

"You have to be wary of rationalizations," WanVeer said. "The little lies we tell ourselves to give ourselves permission to do what is wrong" can cause major damage. In this case, the bosses are rationalizing so they can do what they want. The employee, on the other hand, is probably rationalizing that he shouldn't say anything because he might get himself in trouble.

This is where a company can, and should, weigh in, WanVeer said. "The values of the organization can be held intact through policies and codes, so there is a deeper understanding to adhere to policies and standards."

That is what many organizations -- larger ones, especially -- have tried to do in recent years. Marriott International, for instance, has a code of ethics and an "integrity self-test" it gives to new employees during orientation.

The self-test is a list of questions employees can ask themselves when faced with an ethical dilemma. Questions include: Is the action legal? Is it consistent with Marriott business values? How would you feel after family and friends heard about it in the media? What would you do if you owned the company and you were responsible for its reputation?

Employees are handed little wallet cards printed with the questions and the business-integrity department's telephone number. Employees can call anonymously if they think they have observed an associate doing something outside of policy, or even to ask if what they want to do is outside the ethical range.

That system, said WanVeer, is classic among corporations, because "it creates an avenue for employees to go to another source." If nothing else, an in-house ethics office, or ethics rules brought up during orientation, can at least lead employees to understand that thinking about daily actions is important to the organization. Thereafter, they may think twice before accepting the $500 box seat to the Redskins game from a client.

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