Ethics or Character: Which Determines Your Success?

In a recent poll, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal asked the question, “What’s the relationship between ethics and success at work?”

The survey found that 74 percent of respondents believe that being ethical leads to greater success, 14 percent believe that in most cases the concepts are unrelated, and 13 percent responded that being successful may require some compromise on ethics.

It’s hard to say that the existence or nonexistence of ethics fully determines someone’s level of success, but it will help determine their character. Ethics are defined as moral principles that govern a person’s behavior, while character refers to the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

In other words, your character determines what kind of person you are and what types of relationships you form in life. It is both how you see yourself and how others perceive you. Your character determines how you value, treat and build trust with others.

We use our character every day to make even the smallest decisions. Did you decide to hit snooze and sleep in this morning or get to work early? Will you have a burger for lunch or go with a healthier salad? In your next meeting, will you speak up or remain silent? Why are these decisions sometimes so hard?

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks explores the idea that humans are made of two parts: an external being and an internal being. He asserts that there is a struggle between our external self, who wants to conquer the world, and our internal self, who wants to obey a calling to serve the world. One wants to build, create, discover, achieve high status and win victories, while the other wants to build strong inner character and sacrifice self in the service of others. Our external self asks how things work and our internal asks why things exist. According to Brooks, it’s this internal struggle, along with a sense of self and understanding of your own limitations, that builds character.

Yes, ethics are important, but people are elevated to achieve success in their work lives not by the strength of their ethics, but by the strength of their character. When you can use ethical behavior to bolster your character, strength, trust, positivity – and ultimately success – will follow.

Chris Dardis is vice president of HR recruiting at Versique Executive Search and Consulting. He has more than 10 years of recruiting and consulting experience and can be reached at