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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Laws, Ethics, Values, and TRUST

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Blog article cover for laws, ethics, values, and TRUST

Do you want to be trusted by everyone? Do you think you CAN be trusted by everyone?

If so, I’ve got some bad news for you. You won’t.

Trust is relative. The same behaviors that would cause one person to trust you could cause another to distrust you.

In one of my surveys, I found that one of the most significant correlations to the level of trust others have in you is the level to which you share values with them. This article will discuss the relationship between laws, ethics, values, and trust.

The legal bar and the ethical bar

Think about the range of actions people take, or things they say, or even think, from the worst possible (stealing, killing) at the bottom to the best possible (charity, sacrifice). Imagine that a third of the way from the bottom is where the legal bar is.

A bar showing the ethical bar above the legal bar

What would you call the actions above the ethical bar? Those are ethical or simply good. What would you call the actions below the legal bar? Those are illegal, unconstitutional, criminal, or simply bad.

Before continuing the discussion, it is important to distinguish between those two bars. The first criterion is clarity. The legal bar is very clear. It is set by words incorporated in laws. There are different levels of laws. At the foundation, or the bottom, is the Constitution. Above it are federal and state laws. Above them are local regulations, etc. Although some laws might leave something for interpretation (that’s why we have the court system), they are still much clearer than the ethical bar, which resides within every person’s value system.

For the same reason, different people might have different ethical bars. What one person might consider ethical (or good), another might consider unethical (or bad), whereas the law applies to every person (within its jurisdiction) equally. Of course, constitutions and laws may vary from country to country or state to state, and local regulations may vary between cities. Still, they apply equally to everyone within that jurisdiction. Finally, the consequences of acting below the legal bar carry extrinsic/external consequences imposed by external entities (such as fines and imprisonment) on the person performing those actions, whereas the consequences of acting below the ethical bar will impose only natural, or intrinsic consequences, as devastating as those might be.

A table comparing the characteristics of the legal bar and the ethical bar

At this point, something should be made clear. An organization’s code of ethics does not represent the ethical bar. Instead, it is part of the legal bar. The code of ethics is a self-imposed set of behavioral rules that every organization member is expected to meet. For example, the National Speakers Association has a code of ethics. It is available for everyone to see on the organization's website. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) has its own code of ethics, again available on its website. The code of ethics meets all the criteria for being at the legal bar. It is clear, written, and transparent. It applies to every member of the organization equally, and the consequences of violating it are extrinsic, often resulting in a member being expelled from the organization. So, in this article, the ethical bar refers to a self-imposed bar that separates good and bad behaviors individually, driven by a person’s own value-set.

The gray area

If behaviors above the ethical bar are good and behaviors below the legal bar are bad, universally, what should we call behaviors that are in between? Below the ethical bar yet above the legal bar? These are often referred to as the “gray area,” loopholes, or generally bad things you know you (or others) shouldn’t do, but they are not illegal. Not yet, anyway.

Again, those ethical bars are different for different people. For that reason, there are things that you might consider unethical but another person would consider ethical, and vice versa. They are different because we are all different people. We are different in our genetics, where we were born, where (and how) we grew up, where we went to school, where we live, where we work, and the company we keep. We are the sum of our experiences. We are social beings, and we are influenced by the behaviors of others, and what’s acceptable in one place is unacceptable in another. Because of that, trust is a personal thing (Trust Law #3), and the same behavior that is acceptable by one person may be unacceptable by another.

Our ethical bars are also contextual. Your ethical bar might be above another person’s in one area while lower than theirs in other areas. For example, you might consider being late to a meeting unacceptable, while another person finds it acceptable. At the same time, they might consider using certain words in a conversation offensive, while you might not. For that reason, trust is also contextual (Trust Law #2).

Different values

Let’s assume your ethical bar is higher than mine in a specific context. We can agree that actions above both our ethical bars are good and those below both are bad. But what about actions that are below your ethical bar and, at the same time, above mine?

Comparing the different ethical bars of two people and the gap in between them that causes distrust

I would consider those actions ethical, while you would consider them unethical. In comes the component of Personality Compatibility of the relative trust model into play. I will trust you as a result of such behavior by you because I consider it ethical. But you will not trust me when I behave that way because you consider such behavior unethical. This is an example of Trust Law #4: Trust is asymmetrical. Person A trusting Person B doesn’t mean that Person B will trust Person A. At least not at the same level. Oh, and sometimes we hold others to a higher ethical standard than we do ourselves, creating another source of trust asymmetry.

The impact of behaviors between two people’s ethical bars depends on two things: how far below your ethical bar did I behave (the closer, the better, and the farther, the worse), and how important is staying above this specific issue in your ethical bar is to you. The more important it is to you, the more negative impact my behavior has on your trust in me.

It is important to add one more thing: in one of my surveys, I found that the correlation between shared values and trust is the highest I found of any other factor, 86%.

Erosion of the ethical bar

Can you behave below your own ethical bar? Yes!

This would typically be the result of some unusual circumstances. Some of those would be unintentional (you were unaware of that behavior or its impact on another person, which could be due to a lack of sufficient empathy or your ability to see things from the other person’s perspective as if you were them). It could be due to a cognitive bias, a natural tendency to seek information that supports our positions and justify our behaviors. But this could also be intentional and conscious when you feel you don’t have another choice, when you feel pressure or temptation.

The latter is more problematic. The more you consciously behave below your own ethical bar, the more you get used to behaving this way, and your ethical bar (which we can refer to as the average of your marginally acceptable behaviors) begins to decline.

We are observing a continuous decline in our general ethical bars. Those are represented by fraud, unethical high-pressure sales techniques, psychological manipulation in marketing techniques, “alternative facts,” etc. When those become acceptable, the ethical bars of all people within society also decline. What I considered unethical today, I might consider ethical tomorrow “because everyone is doing it.”

The government response

The government comes to the rescue (I’m not sure if my sarcasm came across) and raises the legal bar. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several companies (Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, Peregrine, to name a few) behaved in extremely unethical ways, which were not illegal then. As a result, the government enacted the Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) Act of 2002, making those behaviors not only unethical but also illegal, with all the appropriate consequences. The government didn’t trust companies to behave ethically if left alone. And it had all the justification to do it.

But can the government raise the legal bar too much? I believe it can, and as proof, I want to share a few laws that are, for lack of a better word, stupid. In Oklahoma and Ohio, you can't make faces at a dog. In Florida, it's illegal to sing in your swimsuit. In Arizona, you can't have a donkey sleeping in your bathtub after 7 p.m. In Kansas, it’s illegal to serve ice cream on cherry pie. In California, it's against the law to eat an orange while taking a bath. In Alabama, it's illegal to drive while blindfolded (you would think that you wouldn’t need a law for that). In Arkansas, it's illegal to sound your horn at any place where cold drinks or sandwiches are served after 9 p.m. In Georgia, it's illegal to consume fried chicken by any means other than with your hands, and in Louisiana, it's illegal for a woman to drive a car without her husband waving a flag in front of it beforehand. I’m sure there are more laws like that.

So, would you ever behave illegally, yet you would consider it ethical? Before you answer—have you ever knowingly driven above the allowed speed limit?

Raising the legal bar may not solve the continuous decline in our collective ethical bar.

What’s the solution, then?

No doubt, increasing the level of empathy and thinking less that the world revolves around us will positively impact the collective ethical bar. Unfortunately, a 2017 research by Henri Santos et al. showed that the level of individualism (read, the world revolves around me) increased by 60% in practices and 69% in values in English-speaking countries.

How do we increase empathy? In several places. First, we teach it at school. The US education system must emphasize it. Second, we push our elected officials to reduce the level of their polarizing rhetoric, grandstand less, and compromise more (a 2015 MIT study showed that the level of cross-party agreements in Congress was at its peak in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War), and since then declined by orders of magnitude). Another party to “blame” is social media. When social media platforms were launched, every user would have received posts from all other users connected to them. As the number of users increased, the social media platforms began developing algorithms that would prioritize posts by people you interacted with more. As a result, they became “echo chambers” that further divisiveness. This could be resolved either by changing how those algorithms work or by reducing our dependency on social media platforms as a source of information.


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Dr. Yoram Solomon

Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a three-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that explains what trust is and how to build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to magazine.

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