May 10, 2017 by

It would be intriguing to map the thinking patterns of engineers, architects, and graphic artists. I expect the engineers to be linear thinkers, the graphic artists to be web-based, and the architects to be a little of both.

Of course these differences among professions are gross generalizations. But rather than focus on the differences, let’s look at the similarities, especially in the realm of ethics. I am interested in the question they all must address, namely, “How do I balance my personal values with my career goals and the goals of my firm?” Let’s see how the answer twists and turns as careers play out.

At the beginning of one’s career, a specific ethical problem is maintaining personal values while building credentials. For example, suppose that a young professional—whether an engineer, architect, or graphic designer—eats locally grown, organic foods because they feel that food from big conglomerates includes unnecessary salt, sugar, and fat. Yet, a food giant contacts them to do substantial work. Do they put their personal values aside to build their careers?

I recently asked students in my graduate class in Creighton’s Heider College of Business this question. One was extremely vocal. “I’d take the job. I have student loans that need to get paid off. I also have to get any experience I can. Later on, I can be choosy about the clients with which I work.” Another was just as vehement that, “whether it comes to a job or an investment, there are certain things I will not do and opportunities I will not take. Period.”

As the years go on, careers advance and professionals move up the ladder. A specific ethical problem at this stage is balancing personal values with significant business choices that impact the overall financial success of one’s firm as well as spouses and kids. So suppose that an engineer, architect, or graphic designer personally believes that smoking pot is bad for the individual and society. But they work for a company that will do contracts for anything that is legal. A Colorado marijuana firm contacts them to ask their company to do cannabis cultivation process thermal load calculations (engineer); a floor plan for a production facility (architect); or a website for the company (graphic designer). Do they put their personal values aside to advance the
firm’s profitability?

Some say that professionals can seek guidance about this question by looking to their associations. Professional associations have codes of ethics (like AIGA for graphic designers) that are meant to be useful for addressing the ethical dilemmas relevant in their fields. These codes are important and significant ways of setting standards and expectations of good conduct. I firmly believe in them. However, while codes cover responsibilities to clients, honesty in marketing, and the like, such ethical codes do not typically help professionals address the balance between their personal values and the values of the organizations for which
they work.

Without external guidance, some advanced professionals turn inward and think about going between the horns of the ethical dilemma rather than hanging onto one horn as opposed to the other (as those at the beginning of their careers tend to do). A seasoned professional may use their years of experience to devise a sophisticated way to honor their values while keeping their job. One inclusive solution is to volunteer for, and financially contribute to, a local not-for-profit that provides services to recovering drug addicts. This is akin to people planting trees because, while they object to oil production, they drive cars and want to offset the CO2 emissions.

We have seen that the conflicts between personal, career, and organizational values are real and inescapable. And the ethical line we draw twists and turns as circumstances change. What is the moral of the story? It’s this: As we undertake positions and advance in our fields, the best we can do is to keep our personal values front of mind, and recognize that the twists and turns we take are a natural part of life’s exploration and ethical growth.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.

This column was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.