Dodge the slippery slope of loose ethics

ethics signIn most ethical lapses, executives don’t start off with the intent to lie or defraud. Instead, they get caught up in a messy situation and compromise their ethics as a way to dig themselves out of their hole. What begins as a seemingly minor infraction spirals out of control over time.

Consider the case of Kweku Adoboli, 34, who worked at global bank UBS. In 2012, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for what London police called “the UK’s biggest fraud.”

Adoboli’s fraudulent trading cost UBS $2.3 billion. But he didn’t set out to cheat on such a massive scale.

In 2008, he was a top performer at the bank’s exchange-traded funds desk. When one of his trades lost $400,000, he sought to cover it up rather than admit it to higher-ups.

He initially figured that if he could hide the $400,000 loss from the bank’s accounts department for a short period, he’d earn the money back in other secret trades. But the more he tried to recover his loss, the more he engaged in fraud.

Over the next 2½ years, he realized that he could fake transactions with impunity. So he kept making bigger and bigger illegal trades.

Some of those trades made money, but he didn’t earmark the funds to the bank. Concealing his profits as well as his losses, he established a secret account that he viewed as his own “rainy day” fund.

Moral of the story: When monitoring your own ethical behavior, maintain a high standard. Don’t try to justify small violations by telling yourself, “I’ll do it just this once.”

— Adapted from The Power of Noticing, Max Bazerman, Simon & Schuster.