What Would You Do?

Oct. 1, 2004
EditorialWhat Would You Do?It's probably safe to say that the CEOs of Enron, Tyco and WorldCom never intended to become the poster children for corporate greed, the perfect examples of what not to do in running a business. Yet, if any good can come out of their actions, it is that an increased focus on the bigger issue of corporate ethics now exists. And lest we all sit back in our easy chairs and think that what happened to them doesn't really have anything to do with us, think again. Important lessons can—and must—be learned from these scandals for all of us who provide a service to the public—a public that is increasingly dissatisfied with the moral and ethical climate in America. According to Gallup's January 2004 "Mood of the Nation" poll, a staggering two-thirds of Americans are "very" or "somewhat" dissatisfied with the county's moral and ethical climate.So what does this have to do with the design fields specifically? Michael Thomas, FASID, believes it impacts the profession a great deal, as it does for any profession whose work directly impacts the health, safety and welfare of its clients."It blows my mind that you can have a code of ethics for attorneys or a code of ethics for medical professionals, but there's nothing that governs interior design specifically," he says in this issue's cover story. And while he acknowledges that both ASID and IIDA have ethic codes by which their members are expected to adhere, there is no national or state guidelines to govern the entire profession.In fact, as the world becomes increasingly complicated and complex, ethical temptations and dilemmas are expected to confront design professionals more frequently, according to the National Council for Interior Design Qualification. Its first-ever Continuing Education Monograph tackled the subject of "Ethics and the Design Professions" and is intended to enhance ethical knowledge and learn how to put the principles of ethical design practice to work.And therein lies the quagmire. It is oftentimes easier to identify the right thing to do then it is to actually do it. Consider two scenarios:* Deborah Long, a certified ethics trainer and author of the NCIDQ monograph, tells on her Web site ( of a situation where an interior design professional was directed by a hospital administrator to substitute less-expensive emergency room cubicle curtains for the bacteria-resistant ones initially recommended. The designer pointed out that the recommended curtains were much less likely to spread virulent strains of staphylococcus in the emergency room, which was why they were so much more expensive. Contrary to the recommendation, the hospital administrator went to the local bath shop, purchased ordinary household shower curtains and told the interior designer to "go along or get fired."* A competitor's bid for a big project unexpectedly lands on your desk in a plain vanilla envelope. The package was sent anonymously, but you suspect it was forwarded by a disgruntled employee who happens to be a good friend. The bid is substantially lower than what your firm was planning on submitting. If you don't win this project, your company will be forced to layoff a number of employees.What's a professional to do? In the first situation, the designer should quit and notify hospital leadership her reason for doing so; in the latter, the competing bid should be returned to a principal at that firm and you should submit your bid as originally planned.Easy answers, not so easy actions. Would you have had the fortitude to do the same? Equally important, would your firm's leadership have wanted you take those actions? Certainly, the infamous CEOs above didn't operate alone in their misdeeds; it appears their lapses in integrity ran rampant throughout their organizations, a symptom perhaps of a pervading corporate culture that encouraged such actions.As the profession of interior design becomes increasingly licensed and regulated, the issue of ethics is destined to become a critically important concern. For that reason, the next time your firm has on office meeting, suggest that it participates in the Ethics Resource Center's "Ethics Quick Test," a short quiz designed to assess your organization's ethical effectiveness. Candid responses to the questions in each of the 12 ethics management areas will help identify what is working well within your organization and where improvement might be required. To take the test or download a pdf copy of it, visit Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that ethics is "knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is the right thing to do."A subtle difference, perhaps, but one that can help navigate any career around the ethical potholes along the way.
Katie SosnowchikEditorial Director

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