How do your work ethics measure up?

So you're new on the job, new to your career, new to the workplace. When you look at yourself in the mirror, are you proud of the kind of worker you are?

Your answer could be a snapshot of the future: yours, and that of your profession.

In their new book "Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work," Howard Gardner and a team of researchers at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, and Deborah Greenspan, tested the resolve of young journalists, geneticists, and actors to become "skilled and honorable" workers.

The team found three guideposts to good work ethics: "mission, models, and the mirror test." In other words, "good" workers tended to have the sense that they were serving a broader community, often had attached themselves to good role models, and were able to reflect on what their professional ethical decisions said about them.

The Monitor spoke with Professor Gardner, author of 18 books and professor of both education and psychology at Harvard.

In your study, young journalists and scientists admitted to using dishonest methods to achieve laudable ends. Are situational ethics on the rise?

Newspapers [today] are filled with people who could have stopped cutting corners but couldn't avoid temptation. Society cannot exist if everybody's cutting corners, because it means you can't trust anybody. You can only carry on a dishonest course against a background assumption that most people are honest. And most people [still] are.

What are the stakes?

[Dishonesty is] a recipe for disaster. When the values of [a line of] work change, then the people attracted to it change. Fifty years ago geneticists weren't expecting to be rich and famous. Now, if you attract people to run huge biotech companies to make millions of dollars, genetics becomes less about scientific curiosity. Broadcast journalism, with few exceptions, is not journalism anymore - it's entertainment and ratings.

A domain could also disappear. If accounting, for example, continues to be as fraudulent as it looks now, it won't exist in 20 years. Something new will replace it. Government surveillance? Private detectives? Professions are generated by a moral center in the first place, and if that gets too infirm the profession ceases to exist.

What's the state of mentoring?

To some extent credentialing is replacing experience, though in the sciences true mentoring is still strong. There [used to be] a lot of mentoring in journalism, but now there is no longer enough time. Without mentoring, you're thrown back on your early values system, plus what you learn from your peers and the media. By far the best way to learn to be a good worker ... is to hang around people whom you respect, who exemplify a certain approach to the profession. If you work for 10 years for Geraldo it's different from working for Daniel Schorr.

Can you give an example of someone who used mission, models, and the mirror test to realign themselves to good work?

Andrei Sakharov, the soviet Nobel laureate physicist who designed the hydrogen bomb. He was always independent, but certainly toed the line in the Stalinist era. Because of nuclear accidents, the mistreatment of dissidents, and [his wife] Yelena Bonner he began to think of himself in a very different way. The mirror test was crucial. He asked, "Who am I? Am I an apparatchik for the Soviet government, or somebody who's going to stick my neck out." He was under house arrest for seven years.

People who want to do good work have to spend a lot of time thinking about it. It doesn't start out as instinctive to anybody.

What can we learn from young people who seem to be on track toward a life of good work?

If we don't get young people involved in the political process they won't have the impact they could. John Gardner said, "There've never been so many young people in America doing so many good things. But it doesn't add up, because they don't connect to the political system." Kids are starting wonderful organizations, but they add zero because bad government policies add two zeros in the other direction.

We've [also] had a [societal] swing toward selfishness. If you're only for yourself, what good can you be?

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