Leadership

Three steps to making an ethical decision

For most consultants, our first instinct will tell us if we're about to make an unethical decision. But what if you're in a situation where the choice isn't so cut-and-dried? Follow these rules to determine whether or not you're doing the right thing.

In my last article, Ethical consulting: The Lone Ranger provides guiding principles, I asserted that the level of enforcement of ethics codes and negative consequences for unethical behavior would determine the purity of the consulting world. If you value your reputation and want to be successful, it is essential to establish trust in your relationships with your clients. Therefore, it is imperative that you conduct your business based on a set of ethical standards.

But in some situations, consultants may not have cut-and-dried rules to guide their behavior. If you need some guideposts to making an ethical decision, examine it in terms of the three-step decision-making model offered by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the advancement of ethics and the development of individual character through its programs, workshops, and publications.”

Step one: Follow the Golden Rule
Step one of the Josephson Institute (JI) model states, “All decisions must take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and well-being of all stakeholders.” It suggests that you observe the Golden Rule as a first step to testing a decision’s ethical rating: ”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Of course, this is not always easy. Different stakeholders can be affected by the same decision in either a beneficial or detrimental way, and the Golden Rule does not tell us how to make a choice that is best for everyone. The JI model explains, “We cannot demonstrate equal love or caring to every person affected by our decisions. Sometimes we must prioritize certain interests over others and advance the well-being of some people, even at a cost to others.”

Step two: Do the right thing
Step two of the JI model asserts, “Ethical values and principles always take precedence over unethical ones.” Although it sounds like an obvious statement, people’s choices are not always clearly definable in terms of ethical and unethical. People may sometimes have a conflict that they see “arising from the clash between what they want or ‘need’ and ethical principles that might deny them their desires. A rationalization process then kicks in, transforming self-interested, unethical motives into others-centered, ethical ones.”

Step three: Very rarely do wrongs make it right
Step three of the JI model says “it is ethically proper to violate an ethical principle only when it is clearly necessary to advance another true ethical principle, which, according to the decision-maker’s conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run.”

As discussed above, our self-interest often clouds our judgment. “The consequentialist facet of JI’s decision-making model acknowledges the need to prioritize among competing ethical values in particular cases, but only when it is clearly necessary to do so because the only viable options require the sacrifice of one ethical value to advance another.” In these cases, we must act for the greater good. “An ethical consequentialist must assert the necessary justification on two separate levels: The purpose of the conduct must be deemed necessary, and the specific conduct contemplated must be necessary to accomplish that purpose.”

Final thoughts: Use common sense, be kind to others
  • You know it's clearly wrong.
  • Your decision may embarrass you or your company.
  • You did not disclose an existing conflict of interest.
  • Your decision reveals a conflict of interest.
  • You wouldn't want a family member to have made the same decision.
  • You cannot defend it as a principle of good conduct.
  • The behavior would be considered immoral by most other people.
  • The action would be considered an accounting irregularity.
  • The action is in conflict with your professional association’s code of ethics.
  • Your reputation may be damaged or adversely affected.
  • You could lose the contract—or your job.
  • Your client will question your integrity or objectivity.

If any of these statements are true, you can be certain that you’re considering an unprincipled decision.

But all of these thoughts and guidelines can essentially be distilled into one “rule of thumb.” The next time you are faced with a workplace dilemma requiring you to make a business decision, just follow the Golden Rule. It's really that simple.

If you’re interested in further reading or research on this topic, read the Complete Guide to Ethics Management: An Ethics Toolkit for Managers. Edwin Smith is vice president of training for Intralinux, Inc. and founder and CEO of ITtalent.com.

Is this a practical guide to ethics for IT consultants? Are there other principles they should follow which aren’t included here? Start a discussion below or send us a note.
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