Vices can be concealed and temptations can be minimized in many work environments but it is difficult to hide an affinity for alcohol when success relies heavily on your relationships with your coworkers and customers. At the end of a long day of meetings, the formalities recede and social networking begins which can often include alcohol. Many leaders accept this as the cost of doing business but also need to realize the ethical dilemmas that may be lurking for their team and/or organization.
Beyond a relaxing drink at dinner or a celebratory toast, the National Institute of Health estimates that 16 million Americans, aged 18 or older, suffer from ‘alcohol use disorder’ which is defined as “a loss of control over alcohol intake and a negative emotional state when not using” (NIH, 2017). The severity of alcohol use disorder is based on various criteria which can be found, with additional statistics, on the NIH website at National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
A vice is an inability to control a specific desire and a temptation is a situation that causes a person to violate personal ethics (PSU, 2019) so for someone who is predisposed to alcohol issues, this can make business travel and after-hours meetings more contentious. No one intentionally chooses to alienate her/himself from the discussions and decision-making that occur outside of normal business hours. This was the case for one senior leader, Paul, whose vice was alcohol and who used it as an unhealthy coping strategy whenever his stress levels increased. Paul was aware of his shortcomings and intentionally limited his exposure during most business trips by self-regulating his behavior and excusing himself early for various reasons. The president of the company, Tim, was aware of Paul’s vice but respected Paul’s request for confidentiality and would often minimize Paul’s early exits from the gatherings.
Tim recognized that the gatherings were critical to his customer relationships and knew that the interactions often led to additional business so he openly supported the approach and always made time to attend. He also made it a point to keep Paul apprised of any major topics that were discussed in his absence. Tim’s actions demonstrated consequentialism and ethical relativism because he believed the gatherings created more benefit to his team and company than any resulting personal harm to Paul. Leftkowitz defined ethical relativism as “what is right for me is not necessarily right for you” (Lefkowitz, 2003) and also by Tim’s belief that his actions were right and appropriate based on the existing norms of the group. In this case, Tim consumed alcohol at the gatherings without any concerns for Paul’s vice because the gatherings were a standard and acceptable part of his company doing business with its customers.
Northouse stated that “ethics is concerned with the kinds of values and morals an individual or society finds desirable or appropriate” (PSU, 2019). Nothing was illegal or immoral about the after-hours gatherings but it did complicate things for Paul and as the statistics show, affect millions of other Americans who suffer from an alcohol disorder. Would the group norms change if Paul shared his vice with his peers? What if a customer shared a similar vice to alcohol? Executives face these type of situations regularly and should fully comprehend how vices and temptations affect employees and their work environments to ensure they are supporting in a way that reflects their leadership ethics.
Lefkowitz, J. (2003). Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology. Mahwah, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
National Institute of Health, 2017. Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
PSU, 2019. PSY 833: L03 Ethical Theories. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/week-4-unit-1-lesson-3?module_item_id=26240270