Ethics in the job and why it is so important

Ethics in the job and why it is so important
Photo by Jamie Street / Unsplash

Everyone, at some point, had a job where they had some decisions to make or tasks to they were not aligning with. And occasionally this is part of the job. At the end of the day, even your dream job can be annoying sometimes, and you just do it for the money. But every so often there are things that are not aligning with your values or are just don't feel right. I encountered this a few times in my career and think it is worth talking about it. Especially if you haven't had it yet, this is for you.

What is it all about?

Let's take a step back and see what ethics actually means. Wikipedia summarizes it as the following:

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior"

Of course, what's right or wrong also depends on your personal feelings, religion, culture and personal experience. While this might sound very abstract at first let's give you a clear example.

If I said killing someone is right, you would (hopefully) strongly disagree. This is because we value the life as such and don't want to end the possibilities of someone else. While this is a very extreme example, everyone has their feeling of what's right or wrong.

At this point, you might think, okay, but I never had this in my job. In most of the jobs, it's not about killing people, unless you are in the army. Maybe it's just a 9 to 5 office job, or you work as a craftsman. You are invited to think about it again, and you will see that sometimes it is the small things.

To boil it down to the basics, do the right thing. It's important to figure out what is the right thing for you. Every so often, it is just enough to ask if you would be happy with the thing you decided if you were affected by it.

Someone has to build the things that are bad

A very prominent example is the nuclear bomb. The inventor of it J. Robert Oppenheimer, gone into history for being the “father of the nuclear bomb”.

On 16h of July 1945, the first nuclear weapon detonated. Then he said something that's quoted quite often:

He had invented a weapon that can kill a huge number of people, while the attacker can stand far away and watch. If someone had been faster, or he had said no, probably someone else would have invented it. But that's just speculations. Maybe it had taken longer, or it would be possible that many people would have said no. As he was working for the army, it was his job. But he could have denied the request. He didn't. Effectively being the reason so many people were killed over the decades.

Another prominent example is Facebook and the unethical way they track you down for money. Some developers implemented functionality to effectively violate privacy and wok around measurements. Someone was paid to do it, the tech jobs at the gigantic companies pay so much that it's absolutely ridiculous at some point. That's in most cases (not only) because the work is difficult or challenging, but it is to lower the barrier to implement things that these people know are bad. “I get a lot of money, so I don't want to lose the job and will implement it”. But they damage their selves as well at the end of the day. At some point, you are on the consumer side of things, facing the same things.

Going more away from science and tech, let's take a construction worker. Let's assume they are instructed to build a part of a building. That very likely will crash or mould, making people sick or even kill them in a few years, maybe decades. Construction workers mostly have a clue about whether something is a good idea or not. If they decide against what's right, they can cause a lot of damage.

These are not made up examples, but all to common in our daily life. We all, at some point, have to decide if we just follow orders or question the decision and standing with our values. While the impact might look small at first, like with the construction worker, it is all to likely it will grow to something bigger. The blast radius is different, that's undoubtedly. But especially the little things in our work are what matters.

As more and more people are involved, it's easier to think it's not your decision

Most of the today's job world is about working with someone together, co-workers, a product team. Regularly, you are the one just having to work next on something. As we evolved as humanity, we specialized, that also means that rarely one person is the only one working on something.

As parts of the work split, frequently it feels like you don't have much to say. You are working, and it's just part of the job. Actually, that's not the truth. You can deny requests if it is against your values.

“The Handover” is a very famous comic in tech, which looks funny and like a joke at first. Someone just does the absolute minimum, leaving a mess for the next person. When your values are not only doing it for the money, but also giving something back to fellow human beings, this would not happen. Your job, and one of your next colleagues, becomes easier. While a massive mess is not fixed over time, small changes and fixes improve it, a step at a time.

It's not only always about what you do, but also how

Of course, the work you do can be perfectly fine and aligning with your values. But it's also about how you work, together with co-workers, or if you leave a good situation for the next person. In programming, there is the so-called Boy Scout rule. It is roughly like “leave it better as you found it”. Of course, that might not be a core part of your job and cost you some time, but it's for the best of your co-workers. That not only applies to programming or tech, but any job out there.

Moreover, for example, my brother is an electrician, when he finds a mess with cables somewhere he is eager to fix it. Investing the extra 5 minutes to improve it for the next one working on it. And typically, it is even an entirely different company, a person he never met in his life. It's just a small change or fix, but it makes the world a little better. On the other hand, he is happy when he finds a clean installation he can easily work on, also safer for his personal security.

Change starts with you

As with everything in the world, nothing changes without action. So be the person or change you want to see. Say no when you have concerns or if it is against your values. If you don't do it, of course, maybe someone else could do it. But that's not guaranteed. Be an advocate and stand up for your values. If we all agree on such things, it leads to the better.

You might think, why me? I will be the only person out there doing it. As you are reading this, we are at least two people. And a big fire also starts with a little spark. We are in a situation where we have a superior position as workers. Awareness about the environment and caring about others grows, so it's about to get better.

On the OMR in Hamburg this year, Luisa Neubauer dropped a critical message, “If you can, quit!” What sounds very radical at first, is totally reasonable. In her talk, she speaks about the greenwashing of companies. It is about making your company seem more climate friendly and caring than it actually is. Sounds bad, right? But there are plenty of people who do exactly that! A company on its own can't do that. They need human beings to find a strategy, spread simply wrong information. People like these often work in marketing agencies, in-house, external etc. So, as the demand of people in the industry everywhere grows, it's easy to find something else. And if no one is doing it, there is no such thing as greenwashing.

Also talked to people who do such things for a living, and they say its “just for the money”, in their everyday life they care a lot about the environment. So, they “turn off” their ethics for the job. Quite ironically, if you think about it. For work, they support the “we destroy the world company” while in private they only buy bio, maybe even be a vegan for the planet.

It's more important than ever than to stand with your decisions and ethics. Not only in everyday life but also and especially in your job.

Be real and show yourself, not only as a person, but also your values. This helps you at the end of the day and leads to a happier life. I also wrote about it in the post Things that no one tells you when starting your first full-time job, but are so valuable, in case you want to learn more about it, feel free to check it out.

Okay, so what now?

Ethics are significant for any job out there, sometimes it can be just as little as doing a good job for the next person, making their life a bit easier. We should think more about decisions we make, especially if they feel wrong. Start to say no to such things. Figure out what is significant and valuable for you.

We are in a lucky situation nowadays as we have time to think about such things. It's pretty easy to find a new job nowadays, so don't stick with something that feels wrong or companies making the world worse for money.