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Employees, as countless mission statements proclaim, are our greatest assets. However, those workers that exhibit such rule-bending behaviors as coming in late or calling off at the last moment can prove to be a real pain in the asset at times. The reason some workers follow rules more closely than others is simple: everyone is at a different place in their ethical maturity journey.

In The Art of Ethics, author Elizabeth McGrath outlined the various stages people go through on their way to ethical maturity. Our earliest memories of personal ethics involve obedience, she says. When we obeyed adults, we were good boys and girls. When we disobeyed, we were bad. Therefore, we learned to view the world in we're-right-and-they're-wrong terms. As we mature ethically, we recognize that we are entitled to our own opinions about right and wrong. We learn to reject authority in favor of personal free will--whatever the cost--and to accept right and wrong as conditional. Finally, once we experience the consequences of our independent decisions, we begin accepting responsibility for our behavior. We do this by thinking before we act, thus giving some much-needed forethought to our impulsive, or irresponsible, actions.

Unfortunately, many of our employees are stuck in the rebellious stage between strict obedience and ethical maturity. They enjoy the liberty of making their own decisions, while failing to recognize the consequences of their free-will actions. So, it seems to us, they are always testing the limits of their decision-making freedom. Our typical response is to punish the rule breaking. We issue verbal or written warnings to a chronically tardy or absent employee, for instance, only to watch in frustration as the unwanted behavior continues.

Here's the problem with the punishment approach: Once people reach the free-will point of ethical maturity, they're unwilling to return to the obedience stage. No personal consequence outweighs their freedom to choose, for example, to call in sick on a sunny summer day.

So stop trying to push rule benders back to obedience. Instead, pull them forward toward ethical maturity by explaining how their bad choices affect others. Describe the side effects of their tardiness. If the company's technical support telephone lines open at 8:00 a.m., for instance, and an employee arrives ten minutes late, some customers are left waiting on hold. Or, if a worker is late when the production line starts, other employees have to cover multiple positions--sacrificing both quality and safety. It's realizing what the consequences of their actions mean to others that eventually moves people out of the rebellious stage and into ethical maturity.
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