Resolving Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace
In an earlier article entitled ‘An organic perspective on organisational ethics’ (AIM Management Oct 1996), I outlined an overall framework for considering ethics in an organisational perspective. The article emphasised the importance of an organisation’s Vision and Mission statements in helping to foster an overall ethical climate. It also emphasised the need for a desire within the organisation to ‘walk the talk’.
Since the article was published several people have asked what the next step is. That is, after the organisation has thrashed out a good Vision and Mission statement, and has decided what the key values are that give meaning to its purpose, how does it train its staff to resolve ethical dilemmas? This article therefore attempts to outline a simple and effective strategy for resolving ethical dilemmas in the workplace.
What is an ethical decision?
Ethical problems involve considering a range of actions and their corresponding consequences. The thing that makes ethical problems difficult to deal with is that they involve making value judgements, which by their nature are rarely clear cut. In coming to a decision about an ethical dilemma you are required to make a decision which will uphold the values that you feel are most important. However, in making that decision what often occurs is that some values may be violated. The best solution to an ethical problem therefore will involve upholding the most important values to the greatest extent possible whilst violating the least number possible. For example, after joining a new company you discover that other, more senior employees, are overstating their mileage claims to increase their pay packages. They encourage you to do the same so that you don’t show them up.
What do you do? In coming to a decision you must consider: loyalty to your coworkers, fidelity to your company, and honesty. Not all of these values can be upheld, one or more must be violated in order to reach a decision. Most importantly therefore, an ethical decision must be one that you are willing to stake your reputation on. It must be a decision that you can both justify and recommend. It must be a decision that you think is right on the basis of ethical principles you try to follow and that you believe others should also follow.
Ethical dilemmas in the workplace
As mentioned in the earlier article, organisational ethics deals with the ‘ethos’ of an organisation. It examines the shared set of beliefs, of the group of individuals that make up the organisation, which determines ‘the climate of opinion that sets the standard by which right and wrong is to be judged’. In many organisations these ‘beliefs’ are not openly stated, the ‘culture’ of the organisation is hidden and new employees are left to determine for themselves what is ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Often this means employees learn by their mistakes and consequently may defer tricky decisions to management. This not only inhibits productivity but also leaves employees feeling unsure about what the organisation stands for. However, if an organisation has gone through the process of clearly stating the values that give meaning to its Vision and Mission (i.e. what it stands for), then it is in a position to train staff to deal with ethical dilemmas in a uniform way. This is important because it empowers staff to make down the line decisions which are in line with overall organisational thinking. It also presents a uniform front to the customer which is particularly important if there are many people in the organisation who deal with the external environment.
The BELIEVE IT Strategy
Training in resolving ethical dilemmas should therefore apply to all individuals throughout an organisation. It should also be done in a uniform, clear and relevant way. One way of doing this is a simple step by step process represented by an easily remembered acronym BELIEVE IT. As noted earlier, when resolving ethical dilemmas it is important that you BELIEVE in your decision and that others will BELIEVE your decision. For instance, how often do you here Managers questioning subordinates and saying “I can’t believe you did that!”
The BELIEVE IT strategy for resolving ethical problems is a step by step process so that others will be able to BELIEVE and understand your decision. It is based on assessing the principles and values relevant to a particular problem and results in a decision which is believable and defendable. The BELIEVE IT strategy is not dependent on whether you have a utilitarian, universalist or religious approach, it concentrates on the situation at hand and is aimed at reaching an outcome.
Faced with an ethical dilemma, the following steps can be taken:
- State the background of the case including context, its origin and any other important details. What is the history of the problem? Who is involved? Is there any missing information which you need to solve the problem?
- Make an initial estimation of the ethical dilemma present, that is, what the core issues are. What is the main ethical conflict?
- List the possible solutions to the problem.
- Consider the likely impacts of each of the initial solutions. What are the outcomes of each solution? Who will they affect? How will each solution harm or help people?
- Eliminate the totally unacceptable solutions eg significant harm to people.
- With the remaining possible solutions, assess which values are upheld and violated by each solution. What are the significant values and principles which are upheld or violated by each solution? What are the stated organisational values?
- Evaluate the solutions considering the likely impacts and the values which will be upheld or violated. Must determine which values are most important. Why is one solution better or worse than another? Is there another solution you haven’t considered?
- Make a decision, state it clearly including why it is best, justify it and defend it against criticism. How will you carry it out? Who will object to the decision? What are the weaknesses of the decision? How will you defend the decision?
Using the BELIEVE IT model, an organisation can train staff to incorporate a set of key values into their decision making. That is, when assessing the values involved in the dilemma, staff can make reference to what the organisation has stated that it wishes to be the most important values. In this way, the approach to resolving ethical dilemmas in an organisation becomes less reliant on individual value judgements and more reliant on stated organisational values. Additionally, it gives staff a step by step approach which enables them to resolve ethical dilemmas quickly and in a way that is entirely justifiable.
Training staff in ethical decision making is one way that organisation can foster an overall ethical climate. The simple process of going through such training makes staff better able to recognise and discuss ethics and ethical dilemmas. This in turn leads to a more in depth analysis of the behaviour of people within the organisation and of the organisation itself. The result of this is often a constant reminder to all involved to ‘walk the talk’. Remembering, of course, the old Chinese proverb which says:
“To know and yet to do is yet to know”.
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"Sensitive Chaos - A guide to ethics and the creation of trust in the third millennium" (1999)
"The Second Coming of Capitalism and the Secret to Business Success in the Third Millennium" (2001)
"Engage: A research report into US corporate social responsibility trends and the implications for progressive corporations and regulators" (2003)
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