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The Conscience Code

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The Conscience Code

Lead with Your Values. Advance Your Career

HarperCollins Leadership,

15 min read
11 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

You can flourish in your career without sacrificing your values and integrity.

Editorial Rating



  • Applicable
  • Eye Opening
  • Engaging


Dishonest, immoral, unethical and illegal conduct plagues businesses. In this powerful call to moral action – derived from his graduate-level course at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School – professor G. Richard Shell offers 10 rules to help you stand up for your values. His examples show how breaches of integrity and accountability erode people’s moral foundations. Shell assesses the damage dishonesty does to institutions and individuals and the value honest, moral behavior brings to them.


  • Many American companies struggle with ethics and integrity. To do business the right way, follow 10 rules.
  • 1. “Face the conflict” – Finding solutions requires identifying the problems.
  • 2. “Commit to your values” – You need courage to stand up. 
  • 3. “Know your enemy” – Prepare in advance for ethical challenges.
  • 4. “Summon your character” – Act with courage despite any misgivings.
  • 5. “Channel your personality strengths” – Self-knowledge prepares you to deal with conflict.
  • 6. “Leverage the power of two” – Find an ally to strengthen your resolve.
  • 7. “Ask four questions” – Find answers to moral dilemmas.
  • 8. “Engage the decision maker” – Effective strategies help you deal with sensitive issues.
  • 9. “Hold them accountable” – Explore your options for appealing to a higher authority.
  • 10. “Choose to lead” – Elevate yourself and those around you.


Many American companies struggle with ethics and integrity. To do business the right way, follow 10 rules.

In a typical year, more than 40% of the United States’ workforce witnesses unethical or illegal behavior. Roughly one in four employees say their supervisors pressured them to engage in unethical or illegal behavior.

“To be a person of conscience at work, you need to accept some risk that the corrupt people will win and you will – temporarily – lose.”

Robust corporate cultures and strong compliance programs help mitigate unethical conduct issues, yet in larger companies these initiatives can lose momentum over time.

Follow these 10 rules in your fight for what’s right:

1. “Face the conflict” – Finding solutions requires identifying the problems.

Many business leaders who insist they prioritize an ethical culture come up short, while employees who stand up for their beliefs demonstrate character and commitment, and inspire others. Daily ethical actions and behavior, such as refusing to ignore discrimination or harassment, help prevent corruption. 

“The first step in resolving any conflict over values is to turn toward – rather than away from – that conflict.”

To safeguard standards:

  • Identify the standard being violated – Never ignore sexist remarks, bullying or purposeful data manipulation. You are ethically bound to protect your colleagues and obey your instincts.
  • Commit to a solution – People may fail to act ethically because they rationalize their behavior, dislike conflict or believe it’s a losing battle.
  • Consider the consequences – What are the potential ramifications of supporting one side or the other? Do you have a strategy for living with your decision?
  • Decide how to move ahead – Determine which decision maker you will speak to and what possible options you have if that fails. You may have to go outside your organization for resolution.

Challenging the system often incurs repercussions. Accept the possibility that sometimes the bad guys win.

2. “Commit to your values” – You need courage to stand up.

Your values shape your world view and way of life. The list of values is limitless, but five – “compassion, respect, accountability, fairness and truth” – trigger the most significant conflicts. Your emotional response to real-life disputes reveals the values you hold most dear.

“It is easier to hold your principles 100% of the time than to hold them 98% of the time.” (Clayton Christensen)

Guilt and shame can drive ethical compliance. You often make moral decisions based on how guilty you think you’ll feel if doing nothing ensures an unfortunate outcome. Shame can be more powerful than guilt because it involves humiliation and embarrassment. In corrupt organizations, the fear of shame enables leaders to perpetuate a vicious cycle of deception.

3. “Know your enemy” – Prepare in advance for ethical challenges.

How you react to a sudden moral challenge can define your character for a long time. Like soldiers who prepare for combat with war games, prepare psychologically to defend your principles before a crisis occurs.

“Your character is influenced by the behavior of those around you, so pay attention to the values of the people you work – or hang out – with.”

These factors cause decent people to behave dishonorably.

  • Bad behavior becomes a group norm – Teams united in a common goal develop behavioral norms that become standard operating procedures (SOPs) among peers. Depending on the leaders’ values, SOPs can be virtuous, unethical or a combination of both.
  • Following orders – No matter the authority of someone giving you orders, you must decide whether following those orders violates your moral code.
  • Misplaced rewards – Companies often prompt large-scale corruption by offering employees incentives to meet unrealistic sales quotas. Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer found that as people under pressure move nearer to a formidable goal, they have a greater incentive to fabricate data.
  • Social roles – People adopt behaviors, such as following orders, that align with their specific societal roles.
  • “Everybody does it” – This systemic, widely held philosophy normalizes unscrupulous practices. Reforming such a system may require joining forces with committed, courageous colleagues.

4. “Summon your character” – Act with courage despite any misgivings.

People mistakenly assume that only heroes have courage. Courage means assessing risk and defending your principles despite feeling fear and anxiety. Character is easier to develop when you live in a loving home, work in a moral environment and practice good character traits automatically, like parents modeling courtesy for their children. Moral traits grow out of genetics, upbringing and habit. Some people, for example, are instinctively compassionate while others must develop empathy.

Author G. Richard Shell, a professor, had an MBA student named Bill who shared a character-building experience he learned from his father as a 10-year-old. Competing in a two-day soapbox derby, Bill fared well on the first day and hoped he could win. Rules prohibited touching the derby cars overnight. Bill told his dad he’d overheard fellow competitors discussing adjusting their racers and wondered if he could lubricate the wheels on his. His father told Bill that if he cheated, he would never know if he could have been victorious by following the rules. Bill didn’t cheat and finished a disappointing third, but he carried that lesson of fair play throughout his life.

“You can ‘tame’ even mortal fears by acquiring situationally based habits that allow you to function when you feel threatened.”

Good character is consistent at home and in the office. It requires a concerted effort because the temptation to abandon your principles increases as you gain prestige and influence. Enron’s Ken Lay and WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers, for example, seemingly led exemplary lives at home as they engineered colossal frauds at work.

5. “Channel your personality strengths” – Self-knowledge prepares you to deal with conflict.

Personality is a combination of nurture (the social experiences that shape you) and nature (the traits you inherit). Though personality dictates your general behavior, you can overcome any negative instincts. Hard workers who prioritize deadlines can take time off. Procrastinators can make a deadline if it matters to them sufficiently.

“The duty to report sometimes places people in the awkward position of choosing between friends and professional responsibilities.”

Acknowledging your personal strong points and shortcomings can help you deal with pressurized situations that threaten your values.

6. “Leverage the power of two” – Find an ally to strengthen your resolve.

As the only female on her project team, Caroline tolerated her male colleagues' inappropriate comments about how certain women dressed. When the remarks turned sexually graphic, she felt angry and morally violated – but maintained her silence. She admitted to regretting her reticence when she shared her story with Shell’s class. Having no support at the time, Caroline couldn’t summon the strength to speak up for herself.

“The single most important decision you will make about values in your professional life…is choosing the organizations you affiliate with.”

Dealing with sexism – or any problem that assaults your moral sensibilities – is more manageable when you have allies who strengthen your convictions, keep your confidences, clarify your options and help you stay calm. Peer pressure is powerful. One experiment indicated that a lone dissenter in a group will often concede to the majority, despite knowing the group is wrong. Sometimes you may need an outsider’s clear-minded perspective. 

Be wary of the moral standards at your workplace. You may find yourself subtly adopting an ethical philosophy you normally would reject.

7. “Ask four questions” – Find answers to moral dilemmas.

You need a level-headed approach to deal with difficult ethical dilemmas.

“It is one thing to have values and another to find the courage and skill to fight for them.”

Answering these four basic questions may not resolve your difficulties, but it will provide clarity and help you act responsibly. Ask:

  • What can happen? – Assessing consequences is often the most critical consideration. Who will the consequences affect? What are the likely ramifications? Can you make a decision that minimizes harm to individuals and the company?
  • Who deserves your allegiance? – Are you duty-bound to support certain people or your company? Do those loyalties move you closer or further from your core values?
  • Do you understand your reasons? – You will have to live with your decision, so make sure it aligns with your moral code. Consider: How might this action affect your social identity?
  • Are you upholding your principles? – Some people refuse to bend their values. Are you prepared to take a firm stand when principles, compassion and fairness hang in the balance?

8. “Engage the decision maker” – Effective strategies help you deal with sensitive issues.

Proven communication strategies are particularly beneficial when you're dealing with more powerful co-workers or supervisors. Be confident in your motives before you begin a conversation. Unwavering commitment to your values will reduce your anxiety and tame your emotional reactions. 

“Your overall credibility ultimately depends on your audience’s perceptions of you, not on how you see yourself.”

When you deal with decision makers who have the power to act on your recommendations, you need to have credibility or other person will not take you seriously. Be aware that your expertise and experience affect how people regard you. Learn about the other person’s approach in advance and demonstrate empathy and understanding for his or her position. 

9. “Hold them accountable” – Explore your options for appealing to a higher authority.

If a decision maker dismisses your argument,you may approach someone higher up. Proceed cautiously; bosses don’t like it when you go over their heads. Seek permission first.

“There is a lot to be said for measuring success in your career in terms of professional integrity rather than longevity with a single employer.”

If you lack the power to take a questionable matter to higher-ups, find out if a more influential person will represent your cause. If you cannot achieve resolution, file an internal complaint or apply pressure by publicizing the issue – while first considering all possible ramifications.

10. “Choose to lead” – Elevate yourself and those around you.

Living a value-driven life can be contagious. People take cues from those who are firmly rooted in moral principles. You don’t need a title or big office to set an example. Your presence serves as a constant reminder of what is possible.

About the Author

G. Richard Shell is chair of the Wharton School’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department.

This document is restricted to personal use only.

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