How to bring your conscience to work

Wharton’s G. Richard Shell talks about how employees and managers can stand up for their values and create a more ethical workplace.

Wharton professor G. Richard Shell’s graduate course on business responsibility is peppered with students he calls “ethics refugees.”

Employee talking seriously with their employer.

They are young people who earned their bachelor’s degrees and landed a great job only to fall into an ethical or moral trap set by a boss, a co-worker, or the company culture. Sexual harassment, discrimination, fraud, lying, cheating, peer pressure—the list of unsavory and illegal behaviors goes on.

Inspired by their real-life conflicts and wanting to help, Shell, chair of the School’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, wrote “The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values. Advance Your Career” as a practical guide for handling the sticky ethical situations that can arise in the workplace. Drawing on both research and the real lives of his students, the book provokes readers into thinking more deeply about the consequences of their actions—or inaction.

“Good people are put in bad situations, or they navigate to bad situations without knowing quite how they got there. Then they have to decide how they’re going to respond,” says Shell.

The book is organized into 10 chapters that serve as rules of engagement for creating a conscience code. The rules help readers approach conflicts with a methodical strategy for resolving problems, rather than rushing in with righteous indignation or giving in to the temptation to look away.

Shell acknowledges the risks in pushing back against an unethical culture. People who push back risk being fired, demoted, blackballed, and threatened for standing up. But he believes there is a longer-term personal cost in slinking away from the problem. People of conscience bring their ethical standards to the office every morning, he said, so they can look themselves in the mirror at night. In addition, putting up with a toxic work culture inevitably takes its toll on wellbeing, as anxiety and fear replace the positive motivations that lead to great work.

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.