Leading Blog






06.20.11

You Can Be Legal and Still Be Wrong

You Can Be Legal and Still Be Wrong

IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to find a big difference between what’s legal and what’s right. Our preoccupation with “what’s legal” ensures more legal problems. If we paid more attention to what’s right, we would take our relationships to a new level. And it’s all about relationships.

Legal is about what I can get away with. Ethics is about what is right.

Legal requires less thought than ethics. It's easy to shrug off responsibility when I can simply point to a law, a policy, or a rule. “I’m sorry. What can I do?”

Legal is about me. Ethics is about you.

Ethics requires that you take responsibility for outcomes. Ethics says, “I care what happens to you.” A legal approach simply responds with, “Read the contract. It’s all there.”

Too many organizations base their actions on the answer to the question, “Is it legal?” or “Are we protected?” As a result, they often end up on the defensive and consequently and unnecessarily spend excessive amounts of money on public relations, branding, and customer service. If they changed the question to “Is this right?” or “Is this how we would want to be treated?” they would find they have to rely less on what is legal and as a result create better relations with all stakeholders.

But it’s not faceless organizations that are to blame. It’s individuals in a culture that is preoccupied with “what can I get?” Organizational cultures that ask employees to make everyday decisions based on expediency, one-sided considerations, and policies and procedures designed to protect rather than facilitate, are going to miss the mark. Regardless of contracts, policies, and procedures, people want to feel like they are being treated fairly. “Is-it-legal?” thinking just isn’t going to get you there. An ethical culture is one that thinks differently. It asks, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?” Ultimately, it is an organizational and individual leadership problem. Anyone in an organization can stop and ask themselves, “Is this right? Is it fair? Is it just?” and respond accordingly.

Legal departments should become ethics departments that place the emphasis on doing what is right; advise based on higher values; leaders that place more emphasis on the upside rather than on the downside of an action or decision. How-does-this-help rather than what-is-the-worst-that-can-happen-to-us if we just do what we want? Might doesn’t make right. It makes animosity, distrust, and isolation.

Of course, we need some laws, rules, and procedures, but they must be applied ethically. We will always be confronted with legal challenges, but if our responsible response is focused on what is right and not on what we can get away with, we will become better companies and employees.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:13 AM
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