The lost art of ethical decision making

Business ethics should be a company's most important issue, but sometimes that's not the case.

ethics.jpg

Image: Devonyu, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Business ethics is one of those funny topics that's always assumed to be taken care of, and as such becomes completely ignored until it blows up in dramatic fashion, at which point it becomes the company's most important issue for a brief period before returning to obscurity.

As a case in point, I was a lackluster college athlete on the school's ski team, which entailed all the perks and rules of being an NCAA athlete. During my time on the team, there was a minor bribery scandal with one of the major sports, which resulted in all of us being hauled into various ethics training classes, my favorite of which was how to respond to organized crime. While this had the benefit of creating a delightful mental image of a Mafia-type ne'er-do-well from central casting attempting to bribe mid-pack collegiate skiers to throw a race, a season later and all was forgotten and back to business as usual.

 SEE: Recruiting and hiring top talent: A guide for business leaders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Ethics aren't just a half-day class

Very few people would question the importance of ethics and ethical behavior; however, for most teams and organizations that importance rarely manifests itself in more than a short, annual course. While there's nothing objectively wrong with a course or two on ethics, especially in today's complex legal environment, the behaviors you and I demonstrate as leaders are far more impactful. All the courseware in the world won't make up for a company culture that's defined by leaders who bend the rules, allow the ends to justify the means, and treat their subordinates as commodities to be exploited and then replaced when no longer valuable. 

Ethics need not be wildly complex, nor must you exemplify saintly behaviors or be infallible in your decision making. As you lead your teams, try to apply these guidelines.

Implement the "newspaper test": When faced with a complex decision, especially one in which you're faced with a variety of bad options, imagine that an account of your decision and the behaviors and process that got you there were published in a front-page newspaper story. Would you be a sympathetic character who weighed the various options, treated the parties fairly, and respected your obligations as a leader, even though the outcome wasn't all rainbows and unicorns, or would you be portrayed as slyly manipulating circumstances for your benefit?

Make decisions fairly: Perhaps one of the most challenging concepts is that of "fairness," particularly around the human tendency to conflate fairness of a process with fairness of outcome. The former should be the goal of your own ethical standards, as that provides all parties with similar consideration, information, and standards. Where trouble arises is when you attempt to create a "fair" outcome that causes you to treat various parties and factors differently to justify an end result. If you find yourself trying to structure a process to create a particular outcome, even if that outcome is well-intentioned, you may be playing favorites and should reconsider your decision-making process. 

Enlist your team's help: It can seem like we're expected as leaders to always have the right answers, and that consulting with your team can be a sign of weakness, but when a tough decision with ethical implications is staring you down, it can be a good moment to invoke your team. Not only will you get different perspectives that might show an angle or aspect of the decision you hadn't yet considered, but you can also involve your team in the decision as a way to demonstrate the right way to incorporate an ethical framework into the process. Merely articulating your thought process, and how you're trying to create a process that fairly considers all aspects of the decision, will have far more impact on your team than the average ethics webinar.

Realize that decisions are fluid: When considering the ethical aspects of a decision, realize that this will always be a fluid process. New information can come to light, a new external, or internal factor or even the input of another colleague can change the ethical calculus of a decision. Even if you've already committed to a course of action, if new information comes to light that changes the ethical landscape, don't be afraid to revisit the decision, even if it causes some element of personal difficulty in the short term.

Like it or not, as leaders one of our most important unofficial roles is demonstrating ethical decision making every day, a role that can't be ignored until a crisis, or "outsourced" to a training vendor. Actively considering the ethical implications of your actions and decisions will create high-performing teams that strive to follow your example. 

Also see

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...