I am sure my name will never be on the short list for canonization into sainthood. Like all executives, I am a human with faults and foibles. However, I do try extremely hard to set and adhere to standards of behavior for myself and other leaders in the company.

Proper executive behavior is a subject very seldom written about because no one wants to be branded as a member of the morality police; or, worse, deemed a hypocrite for their own past failings. In my view, executives and managers need more counseling on proper behavior and ethical standards in the organization because the arrogance of power affects them more than any other position in the company. It is a mistake to equate power with virtue.

The problems created from moral and ethical standards for executives and managers are fundamentally inherent to the position. Most people you employ will not speak honestly with you because they are programmed to say “yes” in their effort to please you. Very seldom will you find an employee who has the courage to tell their boss that they are screwing up ethically. Compounding the problem with “pleaser employees” is the reality that most bosses hire people they like, so there is a deadly fundamental combination of a “pleaser employee” who you like. This combination can quickly undermine the success of a business.

There is also a darker societal problem that is a constant black cloud hovering over any person of success. It seems in our culture today that many people get absolutely giddy with joy over the demise of someone with power and influence. Don’t kid yourself – missteps or ethical failures of executives and managers are always eventually reported, because the successful must always pay.

Here are some of my personal guidelines for staying on an ethical track:

  • Instruct your subordinates to report you to your higher authority if they ever see you do anything that is illegal, unethical, immoral, or unsafe. Have black and white standards in ethics and morality and avoid too much time in the gray areas.
  • Understand your circumstances and fear the arrogance of power. If you are ever physically attracted to an employee and cross the line, realize that you will eventually be found out. The first time you do not comply with that employee’s wishes, you will pay.
  • Don’t socialize with employees. Mixing alcohol and parties with subordinates is a recipe for destroying your organization.
  • Executives and managers need to hold themselves to the same rules and guidelines they expect from their subordinates. This means drug and alcohol testing as well as following basic workplace rules of conduct and behavior.
  • Always meet with subordinates of the opposite sex in the company of other people and never in a closed office. Especially in these hard economic times, there are people who will intentionally manipulate a situation, which could lead to a huge EEOC payoff for them. In EEOC cases, you are deemed guilty until you can prove your innocence.
  • Live a decent life – watch your alcohol intake and don’t use drugs. Executives and managers are under a lot of stress these days, which can lead to alcohol or drug abuse. If your employees see their boss as a dope-head or alcoholic, then you are decaying the standards you want for your business.
  • Never ask a subordinate to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.
  • Be very careful with messages you send out through social media. An executive or boss flaunting inappropriate behavior or over-the-top toys becomes a target of ridicule and bitterness within the organization.  Do not show off a Rolex watch on Facebook and then ask your subordinates to take a benefits cut.
  • Finally, be nice. Many of your employees are really hurting these days and the last thing they need is an arrogant jerk of a boss having a good time at their expense. I firmly believe this is one of the primary reasons that workplace violence is up.

I continuously give this same basic message to our management team because it is important for them and me to understand that we should never allow the arrogance of our position to put us on a different pedestal from our employees. Executives cannot delegate the messaging on proper behavior and ethics to their human resources group because the tone and leadership for these issues are set by the boss. By discussing it with our management group on a frequent basis, I hope it bolsters all of us to resist the temptations that surely will test our human will.
On a final note, if you are an executive in a moral or ethical dilemma, my best advice is to come clean. You can come clean by stopping the bad behavior; confessing to your higher authority; changing your ways; and then implementing a culture in your company that will discourage bad behavior by all. As much as you would like bad things to go away, they will not, unless you are prepared to change.

Don Magruder is the Chief Executive Officer of Ro-Mac Lumber & Supply, Inc. of Florida, former Chairman of the Board of the Florida Building Material Association, and two-term past President of the Southeast Mississippi Home Builders Association. Contact him at don.magruder@romaclumber.com or (352) 267-5679.