Practical tools to help you bring your conscience to work

A new book by G. Richard Shell of the Wharton School serves as a street-smart guide to standing up for your values and creating a more ethical workplace.

picture of author and book cover
Wharton professor and author, G. Richard Shell, of “The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values. Advance Your Career.” (Image: Harper Collins Leadership)

An essential guide for standing up for your values at work, the new book “The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values. Advance Your Career” offers a practical, step-by-step guide for taking on difficult ethical challenges when an employee’s core values are challenged.

Written by G. Richard Shell, the Thomas Gerrity Professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School, the book is inspired by real-world conflicts that Shell’s MBA students shared with their classmates in his core course on business responsibility. These young professionals had earned their bachelor’s degrees, landed a variety of great jobs in business and the nonprofit sector, only to come up against unexpected pressures to go along with—or even engage directly in—misconduct.

“I wrote this book in response to requests from my students to help them navigate conflicts over core values such as honesty, social justice, fairness, and wellbeing that are all-too-common in the workplace,” Shell commented. “My goal is to reframe their thinking about these difficult situations from ‘conscience or career’ to ‘conscience and career.’ I am encouraging people to think of themselves first and foremost as ‘leaders of conscience’ no matter where they stand in their organizations.”

Shell, the former chair of Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, has written books on negotiation, influence, and success that have sold more than half a million copies in 17 languages, and his Coursera course on the meaning of “success” has reached tens of thousands of people around the world. He also directs weeklong workshops on negotiation and strategic persuasion for senior executives.

His research for “The Conscience Code” integrates studies on organizational culture, leadership styles, conflict management, individual motivation, and interpersonal communication. In addition, it uses real-world examples and stories to illustrate his framework. As Shell puts it, he hopes his values-to-action framework will “help readers learn to stand and fight instead of withdrawing when it comes to advocating for their values at work.” In this way, he says, they can become highly effective “leaders of conscience.”

The following excerpt is adapted from “The Conscience Code” and reprinted with permission.

There is an increasingly urgent problem in professional life: standing up for core values such as honesty, personal dignity, fairness, and justice when the pressure is on to look the other way.

The consequences of making poor decisions in these situations are significant. When a boss or peer pushes you to engage in (or go along with) conduct you know to be wrong, a misstep can open you to charges that you endorsed their behavior. In extreme cases, it can ruin your career—especially in a world where social media opens the doors into every office. After all, standing by while others engage in sexual harassment or office bullying empowers the wrong people to do the wrong thing, destroying morale and productivity. Your day-to-day tolerance for those who cut ethical corners also resets the standard for the “normal” way to get things done. Remaining silent while a boss lies may be only a small step, but it’s a step down the wrong road. You are letting yourself be led by your fears instead of choosing to lead with your conscience.

Before I began teaching a required Wharton MBA course called “Responsibility in Business,” I had been under the illusion that significant misconduct was a relatively rare occurrence in organizational life. My students have taught me otherwise. They have shared stories in class that range all the way from sexual assault and harassment to office bullying, racism, and fraud. 

Moreover, their stories are part of a much larger pattern. A 2021 global survey published by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative revealed that 63% of middle managers reported pressure by bosses in 2020 to behave unethically (or illegally). Some 79% of all employee respondents told researchers that they faced retaliation when they tried to report wrongdoing. Only one in five employees feel they work in what they consider to be an “ethical culture” at work. Well-run corporate compliance programs and healthy corporate cultures can reduce this problem significantly, but these are hard to sustain across large enterprises over long periods of time. And too many companies give only lip service to both.

I wrote “The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values. Advance Your Career” to give employees at every level a simple, practical set of strategies to follow when they face critical choices between conscience and career: face the conflict squarely, own your responsibility to do something about it, find an ally to consult with, and then take the least-risky, proactive step in the right direction. If this fails, don’t give up. Fall back, gather more intelligence, and keep moving forward. In short, I provide a time-tested, research-based pathway that will enable you to maintain both your pride as a professional and your moral identity as a “person of conscience.” 

Adam Smith, the moral philosopher credited with being the founding father of competitive market capitalism, notably pointed to the profound “tranquility” that comes from living an honest life in the face of pressures to behave badly. I am a fan of Smith’s point of view. Authentic, lasting success in any profession demands adherence to the highest standards of integrity. 

When you bring your sense of right and wrong to work, you can enjoy tranquility in that most private of all domains: your conscience. You also serve as a beacon to others, who look to value-based leaders when others are turning away from ethical conflicts. Finally, you are a champion for what your organization can be at its best—and what its best people want it to be every day.

Taken from “The Conscience Code” by Richard Shell. Copyright © 2021 by Richard Shell. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership.