C.K. Gunsalus, University of Illinois professor emerita and author of The Young Professional’s Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares.
Billy Tabrizi has seen situations where people get themselves into trouble simply by trying to help someone out.
At an internship, the graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in accounting saw interns question whether they were supposed to include training hours on their timesheets. It’s just three extra hours, they would say. The company had a lot of money, right?
And recently, Tabrizi — a member of an academic integrity committee at the University of Illinois — was taking a cab to an interview when he was asked by a company employee if he wanted extra reimbursement receipts, on which he could have included expenses he didn’t incur and the company would have payed for it.
These are the kind of moral and ethical dilemmas that C.K. Gunsalus, a professor emerita of business administration at the University of Illinois, addresses in her new book, The Young Professional’s Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares, which will be released Nov. 20.
The book presents common difficulties that young professionals encounter by employing real-life scenarios and discussing why they happen and how they can be avoided and recovered from.
“I see a lot of people who are idealistic and want to make the world a better place and leave things better than they found them,” Gunsalus said. “My goal is to provide information and tools so that people who want to have an honorable career with integrity and do things in the world have the tools to do that.”
Gunsalus said there are a lot of situations where the intuitive response is not the right one. Hardly anyone wakes up and says, “This is the day I’m going to do the thing that puts me in jail or leaves my reputation in tatters,” she said. And yet, stories of misconduct abound. Sometimes the long-term consequences are not obvious.
Group pressure, pressure from authority and even your own pressure to succeed can all contribute to wrongdoing, Gunsalus said. Often, people are asked to do one thing and it doesn’t seem like a big deal. They become adjusted to it and subsequent transgressions become easier and easier to commit.
“If you sign that report off right in front of your boss, it’s not like he’s going to come back next time with something less unethical,” Tabrizi said. “He’ll come back with more. People try to see who’s willing to fudge stuff.”
Developing what Gunsalus calls “personal scripts” can equip young professionals with prepared words to say if a situation comes up where they are asked to do something that violates their ethics, whether those ethics are outlined in a formal work code or self-created.
“Sometimes there just aren’t systems and there aren’t checks in place, and you need to make those checks for yourself,” said Evan Thompson, a recent graduate who now works at D&D Video Productions in Las Vegas. “It’s realizing that there are certain codes that you have to stick to even when the company that you work for doesn’t have a rule in place for that.”
When young professionals interview for a job, they should discuss their values from the very first minute, Gunsalus said.
“If you mark yourself out from the beginning as a person for whom those issues are important, and they’re important to a lot of people, then you’re less likely to be one of the people who’s asked to do something wrong,” she said.
Thompson said he believes it is particularly easy for those who are new to the workplace to make mistakes because the structured life of college is different from the post-graduate world.
“There’s a certain amount of freedom when you get into the real world, and I don’t think it’s necessarily something that everyone expects,” he said. “It’s very easy to get lost in that.”
But even when mistakes are made, there are ways to recover. Gunsalus tells her students about the “four R’s of an apology”: remorse, responsibility, rehabilitation and recompense. In other words, professionals need to truly be sorry, take personal responsibility for their actions, have a plan for how they will do better in the future and attempt to make up for it.
“The first rule of being in a hole is to stop digging,” Gunsalus said. “Sometimes it’s really hard, either through embarrassment or ignorance, to know to say, ‘Wait, something’s wrong here; I made a mistake.’”
Students don’t go to bed at the end of their undergraduate careers and wake up in the morning with a whole new set of professional skills and knowledge, Gunsalus said. Rather than learning it the hard way, she said students should be prepared for the predictable situations they will encounter.
Tabrizi said it’s easy to be caught off guard, especially in such a gray area — that’s why Gunsalus’ book is useful to those who are navigating those issues for the first time.
“For me, the book is really about how to start your career in a way that you can look back and end up being the person you wanted to be,” he said.
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