Company Quagmires

Companies are sneaky. That’s what my ethics class has concluded. I am afraid that I have created a bunch of young cynics! I only meant to expose the obvious and to create a platform for discussion as a useful exercise. However, many of my students have developed a predisposition not to trust corporate America…or corporate anything. Perhaps I will spawn the watchdogs of tomorrow. Someone has to do it. Hence, an ethics class. It is meant to be more than just another subject in school.

This semester we talked about an assortment of topics including fair hiring practices, dumping and waste, false labeling, and price gouging. We ended with a lively debate about how many companies hide information from the law and consumers, manifesting itself in anything from misleading ads to having an entire Shredder Lab dedicated to shredding of vital audit documents. If only the shareholders knew the entire story! But we are no longer as shocked as we used to be at corporate wrongdoing. Greed drives business. But that is a poor role model and motto for today’s youth.

My kids want full expose. They are particularly outraged about the shredding because it is insidious and illegal. The real truth gets destroyed in a quagmire of unethical practices. Just the act of shredding alone implies guilt. It is no longer just a practical way to dispose of old documents and an easy method to carry old paper to the trash. There is a good reason for it in some circles.

What are they hiding? If it involves a product, it could be the formula for manufacturing. As a corporate secret, this would be fine to shred. We get it. If it involves breaking child labor laws, the illegal use of outlawed ingredients, or evidence of false advertising, it is clearly subterfuge. Of course, the powers that be hope no one finds out.

The kids find false advertising to be a particular bugaboo these days as it is rampant on the Internet. You get phony reviews and testimonials and faked scientific studies. All kinds of promises abound, and most won’t be fulfilled. How do you know what product to buy these days if it is all bogus? Well, as a teacher, I have to be careful here. Not everything is to be avoided or shunned. Most businesses, in fact, operate on moral principles. That is the good news. You just have to learn to read between the lines. Once your eyes have been opened, you start to realize what is true and pare away the false.

My kids feel that with their newfound education in ethics class, they are in the know and less likely to be duped. They can also be appropriately outraged in public. I want to teach them how to make their voices heard. Be leery and be wise. That is my message. And always apply ethical principles to your life.

Truth in Advertising

In my ethics class, we like to keep things relevant and not too obscure at the start. We debate everyday issues that affect millions of people like political integrity, the ramifications of cloning, and truth in advertising. There is probably no person in this country who hasn’t made a decision based on promotion. Most of us read what the media has to say about products and don’t want to be taken in by false claims. We want to belief in the morality of companies selling their wares and expect them to be honest about the features and benefits of their items or service. It is a huge ethical problem if companies misrepresent their wares.

I asked the class to assist me in evaluating the material on vacuum cleaners with a focus on the Internet using web sites like The Vacuum Challenge. To make the assignment more meaningful, I told them that I intend to buy the selected machine based on their research. The students on their own made a list of the best brands and what each has to offer. They insist that I get a cordless, lightweight, compact, and easily movable cleaner. The latest designs are state of the art and there is no more bumping into furniture or wall baseboards. It is never a chore to go from room to room. Oddly enough, price was not the biggest factor. Easy to clean was tops on the list. No more leaky, dusty bags.

In looking at the ads, the kids read all the reviews. They tossed out the lowest one and added up the rest to come up with an average rating. If the reviewers repeated the same problems, they would move on to the next vacuum model. Truth in advertising benefits a great deal from customer rankings and it has been one of the great outcomes of online commerce. Buying something is much more transparent now.

After some deliberation, and without the old-fashioned demonstration that the door-to-door salesman would offer, the students came up with choice number one. I dutifully ordered it and waited for delivery. It looked as illustrated and operation was easy and painless. So far so good. I tackled all the usual chores and made a video for the class of some of the attachments and special equipment. I gave a little speech about how it was an excellent model that fulfilled all of our expectations. Apparently the advertising was completely accurate.

The students enjoyed helping me out as an exercise and soon moved on to other ethical matters of concern in modern society. There is no lack of topics such as world hunger, the shortage of clean water, our government scandals, and so much more. It is a rewarding class and a more than satisfactory career. Each year with new students, I get new insights into common issues that open my eyes to a new way of thinking. Meanwhile, I have a very tidy home!

Warning Unheeded

Ethics is not some highfalutin’ subject that is limited to the classroom or philosophical discussion. I try to show my students how it applies to everyday life. Most situations they encounter have an ethical dimension. It is eye-opening at first, but soon they come to see the issues on their own. I asked them recently to read the newspaper and find articles that are examples of potential ethical debate. You could go on and on about current politics and the crisis situations that are arising in the world. Debate can be intense when it comes to issues of race, war-provoking actions, and the economy. It can be just as hot about an ordinary problem.

When they brought in their articles, there was quite a range to peruse. I asked them to pass them out and have the group select the most unlikely topic. We would judge as a whole whether ethics applies. There was disagreement, as there always is in my class, but we finally came to a consensus. Product warning labels were to become the issue of the day. How is this a matter of ethics, they asked? Here is why, I said, and proceeded to explain. If product labels are inaccurate, there can be serious harm if the item is misused. It could be about the ingredients of an over-the-counter medication or diet pill, or a weak warning that a vacuum cleaner can catch on fire or an attachment can pinch a child’s feet. People don’t always read the label and the print is super tiny.

It is the user’s fault if warnings go unheeded, they said. I asked what happens if the labels are not clear and fully explanatory. An injured person can certain sue the manufacturer if they can prove fault. Ethics go into a court decision about who is right. I remembered a story about a fellow who fell off a regulation size trampoline because he was too large for the unit to accommodate. He was okay for a while until one of the tethers broke, tossing him onto the floor where he hit his head. He got a concussion and wanted to sue for damages. It was proven that he had not read the height and weight limits. He said that they were not visible. It turns out that there is a sign posted next to the trampoline that covers men, women, and children. There are also plenty of great resources on the internet to help with this too, like this: He argued that a regulation piece of gym equipment should accommodate all sizes. He did not know that by law, such is not the case.

Of course, he lost and it was time for the students to discuss if this was a fair outcome. The argument went back and forth and I was pleased to see that there was enough to take sides. It wasn’t a foregone conclusions. Most ethical problems aren’t. It was a great case study and the students learned a lot. We ended the classroom session with a broad definition of ethics and how they apply to modern everday life.

Not the New Car Smell I Was Hoping For

I am a thrifty person overall and stick to my household budget as a rule. I am not a skinflint, only careful. Splurges happen but are rare and only when I feel I need a treat. Vacations are a necessity of life for me, as for most people, but I am frugal about where I chose to stay. I fly coach without fail. I hate wasting money on an expensive hotel room when I will be out and about most of the time. I choose places for comfort, not luxury. Last, but not least, I never buy new cars. Think of the money you waste. They lose their value when first driven off the lot. Therefore, a used car is a better value. You can buy a late model vehicle for half price sometimes. I know how to bargain at the pre-owned car lot. Such a fancy name.

I have been lucky with my choices over the years and hate to start complaining now. I have a serious ethical issue at hand, one that I will share with my students for debate. My recent purchase looked fine on the outside, but after I had paid and got in to drive it away, I noticed a heavy smoke smell. Upon querying the dealer, he confessed that the previous owner smoked all the time in his car. They had tried to air it out with no success. I doubted if the professed detailing included the leather interior. The dealer would have been honest or obliged to take the car back. He refused.

The kids were dutifully miffed on my behalf. There was no argument in his favor. It is a clear case of sales immorality. They insisted I go back. As much as I wanted to, I was tired of the whole mess by now and vowed to deodorize the car on my own. It didn’t help that the dealer gave me a load of “new car smell” spray. I do like that scent but my car did not smell one bit like a new car. I had to get clever. I aired out the car by opening the windows at night to let the breeze in. I also tried some products listed on No More Smoke Smell and supplemented them with Febreeze and some eucalyptus oil on a dry cloth. That did the trick, or maybe the combination of all my strategies worked as a team.

I was pleased to offer my ethics students real life cases to discuss because it gives them a taste what life is going to be like. They will encounter ethical situations from time to time and need to learn how to react appropriately. Used car lots have a bad reputation for good reason so it seems. You have to do your homework and check them out on Yelp. This is why we have the Internet, isn’t it. To help us maneuver through life!

Does a Warranty Make a Product Better?

Ethics is a fundamental part of a model life and it impacts every aspect. Learning good behavior as a child morphs into ethical decision making as an adult. Right and wrong conduct can be seen in business and one’s personal life. It is about integrity and honesty in relationships with people, but it may pertain to other situations that do not involve human beings.

The subject came up in class not long ago when a student told the group that he had spent a great sum of money for one of the best backpacks for business for the job he that expects to have after graduation. He wanted to get it early because he felt it would propel him into the future and enliven his anticipation of what is to come. While the others understood this reasoning, it became an ethical issue when he mentioned that after using the new bag for a short period of time, he ripped it. The seam broke open rendering the backpack useless. He wanted to return it.

Now the tone of the discussion changed. Was this the fault of the user/owner or the company? On the one side, students felt that after the first use, an item is now your responsibility. If it needs repairing, you assume the cost. You can take it back to the store, they argued, and see if there is a warranty. It is kind of like a new car, they maintained. You have so many miles before the vehicle is completely in your hands. You may not like the policy, but you know it in advance. With a backpack, a warranty operates in the same way. You could try publicly shaming the manufacturer on Facebook and see if they respond to avoid bad press. Ethics comes into the picture if the student denied using the new bag to take the burden of responsibility off his shoulders. Then it becomes a matter of defective merchandise to the store. Is it defective in any case, used or not. Not every new object is perfect. The class admitted that it should stand up to normal wear and tear and that the owner should get a refund as promised by the warranty. A few held out sticking to their position that the user is at fault for abusing the product. What then constitutes “abuse?”

It was a lively debate on a mundane topic, but ethics is often applied to ordinary situations in life. Perhaps this is why people struggle so much with it. It isn’t clear cut. A warranty may or may not make an item better. It is not a matter of opinion, however, and the issue is worthy of debate. It made for a good object lesson. While there was a draw in the end, as students remained divided, one student threw out a comment as the class got up to leave at the end of the hour. “You should get a different brand next time,” he shouted. “You won’t have a warranty problem.” Well, everyone has their opinion I thought.

Have We Learned From Flint?

I was appalled at the first mention of the Flint, Michigan water scandal. The public should never be subjected to unsafe drinking water. It is the role of city and state governments to eliminate risks. They must stay informed themselves while also educating the public about water quality. Let me refresh your memory. In 2016, it was found that the Flint River (the main source for potable water) contained higher levels of lead than recommended. Apparently, it had not been tested and therefore insufficient treatment had not taken place. Water is so vital, and it is so important that it be clean, that a state of emergency was declared for 100,000 people. It had taken two years for town officials to discover the problem. It made news worldwide. People were appalled and then frightened. They wanted to know how those in power could let this happen. Would it happen in their own town?

The immediate solution was to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking and cooking. It was even recommended for bathing. A year later, the crisis abated although residents continued to filter their water, or buy it in cases. They will have to do this for several more years while the old lead pipes are replaced. This really called the issue of clean water to my attention. I don’t want to take any changes so I installed a whole house water filtration system like the ones here. I didn’t care the cost. Too many ailments can come from drinking contaminated water. You have to trust your utility company, but the question is “can you?”

I love the fact that I am now protected and I don’t have to buy my water in bulk and store it. I don’t have that much excess space. A water system can be placed under or over counter or at the point of origin of your water supply. You can do a minimal job and put a small one on your kitchen faucet. The point is to be aware of the problem and to take action if you are concerned. It is a huge ethical issue that Flint exposed. I am sure it prompted other towns to follow suit and test their water and start to replace pipes. I expect to hear more scandals in coming years.

We need more grass roots citizens programs to tackle the potential for abuse and to take it upon themselves to make inquiries and to hold elected officials responsible. A few key leaders can get neighborhoods motivated and in the end a full-town coalition can bring change. It can be any issue such as a lack of public parks and playgrounds, insufficient bike paths, obsolete school facilities, and more. Water is one likely to gain a lot of local interest. We are all concerned about whether or not we know the truth. We must mandate periodic testing and reporting to residents. We need to know more about what is happening all around us. Most people just hide their heads in the sand.

What Makes it Best?

In my ethics class, we often discuss what is best. This is an intangible term and there is no one answer that applies to all cases. When we get into a debate about this word, it is a good lesson in absolute and relative values. Are there any concepts or conditions in today’s culture that can be definitively stated? I think there are, but there are limitations. Because one of my students just bought a pair of cleats to wear while playing on the school soccer team, I thought the class would take this as a test example. How can different companies claim that they have the “best” product?

It was easy to start. Everyone blames false advertising and the lack of ethics in product sales. The consumer, of course, knows that the words are written to sway them to make a purchase. They fall for it nonetheless. The words “best,” “premium,” and “superior” are loosely bandied about by clever copywriters. Well, it is up to an ethics class to make things clearer. To us, after much discussion, best means the highest rating in a given class like athletic footwear. When one opts for the best, one has great expectations.

In terms of cleats, you can talk about fabrication, style and design, durability, comfort, materials, control and performance. If one shoe is better than another, who do players buy all sorts of brands at varying prices? Good reviews from sites like Top Corner Mag can make all of the difference. Kids are taken in by their peers. Everyone, child and adult alike, wants the best for the price. They often are disappointed. It becomes an ethics shortfall and no one wants to admit that they were duped.

You could go the scientific route as opposed to our theoretical one. You could gather data by comparing players’ views or taking a poll on a Facebook page. Is the best what the majority likes? That may be a good definition. Is it what has stood the test of time? When innovations enter the picture, what was once the best is tossed out the window. Should we even use the word at all?

Everyone wants to be the best at something like the sport of soccer. But given the nature of the word—excelling all others (like “the best student in ethics class”). Because people are so different, is there one way only to arrive at the top? Webster’s says that “the best” is the most productive of good, offering or producing the greatest advantage, utility, or satisfaction. When you ask, what is the best thing to do? You are looking for this kind of answer. The best soccer cleats produce winning scores and superior team performance. There is evidence behind the positive label. The proof is in the pudding, or the outcome, so to speak.

A student in my class pointed out that money can be an issue and prevent ordinary people of modest means from availing themselves of the best. It becomes another kind of ethical issue all its own—a matter of what is right and what is wrong.

Life Imitating Work

Everything you do has an ethical tone. Everything that happens has implications that reach into the ethical sphere. If people are involved, there are often issues of right and wrong. You might think that something is too mundane or small to qualify, but it isn’t necessarily so. Take something like a broken water heater that floods the garage. This was a recent frustration because my home warranty company is giving me such a hard time about covering the extensive damages and replacement of the nonfunctioning unit. I presented this case to my class for discussion. They had plenty to say on the subject. The opinions, however, varied.

Several people were outraged, reflecting my own mood, and censured the warranty company for failure to live up to the policy specifications without giving it another thought. It is a blatant case of unethical behavior that is all too common in the insurance business, they claimed. Decision makers will find any way out of paying full boat. The class seemed to agree, which is an indictment of this venerable industry. Perhaps the matter needed further looking into. The policy did include water damage and appliance repair. Is replacement the same as repair? That is the heart of the matter. It makes my water heater issue somewhat ambiguous and even a poll on Facebook couldn’t come up with the answer. Repair could be interpreted as addressing the existing appliance and rendering it capable. However, if I could prove that repair was not possible, it would put the ball into the warranty company’s court as far as providing a new unit. A letter from a plumber would be appropriate. The students took turns playing me and the insurer. The unethical response would be for the company to deny the claim by ignoring the plumber’s evaluation or stating that replacement was not an option. If I were unethical, I would lie or ask my plumber to follow suit. Since I had no intention of doing so and the letter was legitimate, I expected the warranty company to pay what is due.

Taking months to make a decision is an ethical flaw in some insurance companies. You have heard horror stories about life insurance policies I am sure. If a company can put off a claim such as mine for a water heater, they hope to wear you out and get you to succumb to any decision they make. Of course, said some students, no company needs to do the policy holder any favors. They must stick to the letter of the law, meaning what is in the fine print. If there is a matter of interpretation, they should provide it upon request. There are definitely issues for an ethical debate involved in so many insurance claims. You hope that the powers that be have studied ethics and have made them a priority. If they put up a fight, the claimant is often at a loss since insurance companies are well versed in the public’s rights.

Acting Ethically at Work

Questions about ethics and your job should start even before you head in for the interview process. Do some research into the company. I like to read through local (and national) news to find out information about both any potential companies or organizations I may work for AND some of the higher ups that I could be working for. You may find that there are, in fact, situations that the company has been or could potentially be in, that you don’t agree with. You may also discover known corporate policies that you don’t agree with—especially if you will be required to enforce those policies. This is an easy and simple way to find out beforehand if a job might not be right for you.

In an ideal situation, if nothing comes up during your research phase, it would be great to learn about potential ethical dilemmas in the interview process, where it would be easy for you to walk away. Ask about company policies and decisions if you are curious as to the motivation behind them. Again, this can help you determine if the company is a good fit for you.

Sometimes nothing comes up or it seems like it will be fine. And then it turns out that things are not fine. It could be acertain manager who does things differently, and in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Or perhaps it is the work environment itself that makes you feel like you are constantly going against your better instincts. You start to dread going to work and you feel uncomfortable doing your job. You start to wonder how you can live with yourself, making the decisions you are making. Your first instinct might be simply to quit and find a different job, one that aligns better with your own feelings of integrity.

However, that isn’t always an option. And I don’t judge you if that is your predicament. In that case, your best bet is to talk to someone in Human Resources. Find out if it is really the policy or a specific employee’s interpretation of a policy. Maybe there is an abuse of power going on that has not been identified. Perhaps additional training can help put things on a more ethical playing field, or maybe people are unaware of what the policy actually IS. Human Resources should be able to direct you to a handbook, employee manual, or other documentation to ease your mind. They should also be able to handle any disciplinary actions or retraining,hopefully keeping you out of it.

If the situation does not improve, you can find out if there is a higher authority you can report to and see if the situation is fixable from there. But chances are, if it is part of the company’s corporate culture, you will likely be best served by firing up your resume and looking for something that aligns more with your moral character.

The bottom line is that you know what is right and wrong. I like to operate on the belief that people don’t do wrong things intentionally, but asituation or lack of knowledge dictates their actions. In those instances, retraining or something similar may help. But if you are hating your job and feeling terrible about your part in what is going on, you can stand up and try to change things—or leave and find a job that will put your soul at peace. I support your decision either way!

Integrity in Basketball Starts with Training

Integrity and ethics are powerful words. While people pay lip service to them, I don’t believe it is real and sincere. Thus I am devoted to teaching the naive young about the absolutes in life of right and wrong. It applies to virtually every area. In medicine, the ethical questions revolve around withholding treatment from the poor, making medications prohibitive for the elderly, and tampering with a fetus or stem cells. When the Nazis experimented on humans, the world sat up in horror. In business, there are issues about fair trade, behavior in meetings, honesty in advertising, and cloning existing goods.

Let’s take a look at the world of sports. I like college basketball, so I will use it as my example. There are ethical connotations to the rules of the game and, of course, the critical issue of good sportsmanship. In college football, you can’t openly dance around in the end zone after a touchdown as a way of mocking the other team. You never haze junior members of your team. Lots of other rules apply to unnecessary roughness and aggressive tackling. Basketball is not as much a contact sport, but you do need the players to respect one another and never practice a tactic that will injure someone. Poor behavior on the court or any competitive playing field is anathema. Training in ethics should be every coach’s job.

Kids don’t learn the ethics of the game on a street corner. Someone has to clue them in. Some have never heard the proviso, “let everyone take their turn.” In school, including college, letting ethics slip has serious consequences. There is no turning back if players develop bad habits including rude remarks, hitting or striking another, or quitting during a game. It is all about training from the inception of the coaching. It should be easy to teach by example and using some basketball training aids such as the ones found at to make the concepts understandable. Don’t be abstract, which often happens with ethics, but more literal and concrete. Players learn by doing and the coach should have a keen eye, commenting on positive and negative behavior.

Ethics is one of the main branches of philosophy, but it needn’t be arcane. Let the team know that it applies to everyday life in all realms. Give them some scenarios to analyze and see if they all agree. Generally, ethical principles are universal and get a consensus. There should be no see-sawing back and forth about how to interpret sports rules. Integrity should be a point of pride with everyone. The coach leads the way. It is always disheartening to find that some of the best ones have serious flaws. I find that asking students to write down what they believe are ethical precepts helps them focus and learn how to express them openly. Discussions of ethics brings the points of importance home. It is no longer some esoteric deep dark secret. It must be brought out into the open and be a normal part of athletic life.

Letting Integrity Be Your Guide

It can be difficult to operate in this world while keeping your integrity intact. We are constantly told that a “cheat day” or a “hall pass” don’t matter, or that good behavior entitles us to bend or break the rules as a reward. We often give in to these feelings and then feel terrible about ourselves afterward. We often hear that little voice in our head, telling us what to do. Sometimes we don’t like hearing it, because we would much rather not listen to what it has to say. That little voice in your head tends to be the voice of reason and truth. You need to have the courage to listen to it. It will take practice, but it is worth it.

Where is that little voice coming from?

Well, for the most part, it comes from your value and belief system. Your culture, family, and life experiences create and shape a value system that is uniquely yours. This means that not everyone has the same moral standards that you do. Therefore, you may encounter others who are acting with integrity, but it might be something you disagree with. They are following their belief system and being true to what they feel is the right thing. Unfortunately, there are gray areas and things are not always cut and dry—there may be times where there is more than one right answer, and you may be uncomfortable with the choice made. Situations like this will come up in both your personal and work life. Chances are when you look at it from the other person’s point of view, you will at least gain perspective on why they followed a particular course of action and what their intentions were. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, sometimes that will have to be good enough. Just because someone doesn’t have the same belief system as you does not mean that they are acting immorally or without care and consideration. Integrity might mean something different to them, and that is something you will need to come to terms with.

However, having said that, just because someone else does something a certain way does not mean that you have to. A decision that is right for them might go against everything you believe in. And that is OK too. It does not necessarily mean that one of you is wrong and the other is right (it could be another one of those gray areas). You need to make the decision that is going to work best for you and how you want to see yourself. If you know you would feel uncomfortable doing things the way everyone else does, forge your own path and let it go. It is better to be OK with your own choice than to do the wrong thing so that others will be OK with what you choose. Hopefully, people will respect your decisions in the same way that you respect theirs. And if they do not, the important thing is knowing that you made the best decision you could, taking your own morals and beliefs into account.

I like to behave in a way that I call, “above reproach.” People may not always like it, but they can’t fault it, either. What about you?

Classroom Debate

One of my students posed an interesting question today, and I wanted to talk about it here because it was an interesting debate. She wanted to know why some people can act with complete integrity and others do not. She established that she wasn’t talking about a good/evil situation here but more of a temptation issue. Why some people cannot resist and others are morally stoic.

First, I had the class pose environmental situations that might give people perspective on temptation. We talked a little about religion and decided that people of faith—any faith—doesn’t make them act with any more integrity than those who don’t believe in any particular religion. While they may have more established guidelines on how to behave, it does not necessarily mean that they actually will.And many people either hide behind their religion or use it as a cloak to cover up their own misguided behaviors. The class determined that religion was not a deciding factor.

Next we talked about family upbringing, but the students talked about their own families and found large discrepancies. Growing up in the same house and being subjected to the same rules and similar life situations did not dictate integrity. This one had a brother who was a criminal but he was always an honors student. Another had a sister who was an alcoholic and he was not. So family values were not a complete given, either. Although the class does not have a large sample of socio-economic backgrounds, we have enough to use as a small sample. We found that it was the same fairly across the board through all of the students. They could cite one person being incredibly ethical and morally upright and someone on the other side of the spectrum “dragging the family down,” as one student put it.

Having exhausted those ideas, one student proposed we look at the influence of position, giving an example of a corrupt judge recently in the news. We decided there are many people in charge of upholding the law, and there are those who feel that they are outside of the system of justice. Some people, when given power over others, take advantage of that power and use it for their own gain and not to protect those around them. We expanded on that, determining that it was true in almost all professions and relationships. When given power over someone or something, there is a temptation to create more power for yourself.

The class decided we were on to something. They hypothesized that the more people craved things like reputation, financial gain, or simply notoriety, the easier it would be to consider acting unethically. When your priority is financial gain, for example, it is easier to cut the corners on the things that matter. And once you’ve started doing that, it gets easier to be more flexible in what you consider OK. The end justifying the means. And since some people have a different outlook on these things, it may be easier for those people to act in the right and to carry themselves with a moral fortitude.

I enjoyed the conversations today to the point where I might add it to my lecture series in a more controlled manner.

What do you think? Do you agree with my class’s hypothesis?

Bribe/Extortion Proof Yourself

Hopefully, the majority of us will not ever be put in a situation where we are blackmailed or extorted. But we may be in the position to hire people or have social relationships with others who may be susceptible to bribes or have things in their past that can cause trouble in the future.

Who is most at risk?

You would like to think that only people who have shady or illicit pasts and who are running for political office would be subject to an extortion attempt, but in this age of social media, it is far more complicated. That picture your friend posted of you drunk when you were underage could come back to haunt you at college admissions time or when you’re about to get your first teaching job. With cell phone cameras being so accessible, just about anyone could be at risk for a blackmail attempt. Most people have something they would rather keep from family or from work.

People who are more likely to be bribed, on the other hand, tend to be people of influence. If you are in a position that could possibly be bribed—in fields like an inspector, a police officer or judge, an official, or in administration, be aware.

What if I’ve done something I’m not proud of? Will it come back to bite me?

Chances are, no it won’t. It depends on what you did, how many people know about it, and your field of business. If you are in the public eye, you’ll be under more scrutiny—which may make it easier or more valuable if something is ‘discovered’ about you. On the whole, most people don’t care about drunken college parties or other nonsense. However, if you work with young kids and somebody films you screaming at your toddler in a shopping mall, that might have an impact on your career.

What Can I Do?

If you act with integrity, you may be able to avoid these situations. Even if you made mistakes before, owning them and being up front about them takes the shame and guilt out of the situation. If you are honest with others, then there’s no power over you with secret information. If those who love and respect you are aware of your indiscretions because you’ve been honest with them, blackmail or extortion are a non-starter.

If you want to avoid the situation of being offered a bribe, you need to show your character full-force. People are going to target those that will lead to the most success, so if you are forthright and honest in your dealings with people, chances are it will never come up. But if people suspect that you have some moral flexibility or a reputation for not exactly following the rulebook, you may set yourself up for a huge temptation and a big problem.

What if someone does offer me a bribe?

The most honest answer I can give you is not to take it. It will lead you down a slippery path of lies and corruption that you probably do not want to be on. Sure it would be easy to take the bribe now but people don’t usually bribe you for no reason. Something will come up and you’ll be forced to get involved, doing something you probably know is wrong. It is easier to say no and move on.

However, there are situations where the bribe should be reported to an authority and have it be handled through official channels. You were likely already briefed about this through your job and should actually know what to do; if not, there is probably a mention of the proper procedure in your handbook, SOP, or manual. Talk to a supervisor you trust if you are unsure. Handle the situation with as much tact and grace as you can muster, and you should be fine.

Human Rights and Corporations

Corporations have many challenges. Depending on the company there can be regulations needing to be followed, laws that dictate how they can operate, employees that need to be provided for, rent and equipment to pay for, as well as shareholders to answer to. The bigger a company, the more complex these things get.

Human rights can get overlooked in the grand scheme of things within large corporations. For example, many companies use overseas plants to manufacture goods. In very rare cases, it is because there is more skilled labor somewhere else. But here in the United States, manufacturing often ends up in the hands of overseas employees is because companies can get away with paying their workers less.

Whether it is because of a lack of regulation or simply an inflation situation, it can be a real problem. First of all, it puts American workers out of jobs that they are capable of doing and may desperately need. But it also takes advantage of slower economies and desperate workers. Why pay someone here the federally mandated minimum wage when you can pay someone overseas pennies on the dollar? As a business owner who is trying to stay afloat, it seems almost like a no-brainer.

I’m not here to say that it is right or wrong. But if a company does go that route, they should be obligated to verify that the employees overseas have decent working conditions. Regardless of the economic situation, every person deserves to be treated with dignity, fairness, and respect. If a company is going to put their name on a product, they should make sure that the people who put it together were treated as such.

Other companies are so prestigious that they can wield an extraordinary amount of power. Large companies have lobbyists who act in their interests with members of Congress. They can—and do—push for legislation that will benefit their bottom line and not necessarily their own customers. And when they do violate regulations, lawmakers are often hesitant to rock the boat or risk losing a huge cash cow for their districts. And when the company is operating in another country and not violating any of that country’s laws, it is hard to reprimand them here where there are regulations.

So what can we do about it? Consumers have the choice to “vote with their wallet,” meaning that if there is a company with a reputation for exploiting workers or for human rights violations, we can buy from a different company instead. We can also push for international codes-of-conduct, where companies would apply the same standard (meaning, for example, giving the label “a living wage” to all employees, foreign and domestic. Such language would give the company the ability to pay an appropriate salary to employees everywhere, instead of being obligated to pay a specific wage to all). Something as little as a set of standards can go a long way toward raising human rights across the board.