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The Anatomy of an Ethical Decision

Some days ethical troubles hit from all sides. A client threatens to move the account if you don’t ignore some annoying protocol. You missed a little detail in a contract that will cost the company money. Your lunch went a half an hour over and your boss wonders why. A supplier sends NBA tickets in the mail as a thank you gift. Every ethical situation seems to have its own set of unique variables that you haven’t thought of before.


Think about the full spectrum of ethical situations in the workplace and the range of corresponding responses. When you boil them all down, are they really all that different from one another? Are they all that complex? The best way to understand complex is to break them down in to smaller pieces. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of an ethical decision and it’s five major components.


Understand the scope of the problem. Ethical decisions are not made in a vacuum. There’s no such thing as a perfect crime. The basic premise is that the world does not revolve around us. The workplace is an incredibly interconnected place where even the smallest ethical choice by one person can have a ripple effect across an entire organization. Every decision you make eventually crosses someone’s path somehow. Even innocent bystanders are dragged into a crisis because they must choose to report it or not.


Collect information from many sources. Knowledge is power. When in a jam, the temptation is to make something up. Information is the key to stopping unethical decisions in their tracks. What does the company manual say? What are the standard operating procedures? What regulations are involved? What are others doing? Are there unwritten codes or guidelines at play?


Don’t just consider a single source or take someone’s word for it. If put on the spot, say, “Let me check and find out what the policy is and I’ll call you back.” In most situations, though, you may not have the luxury of time so do your homework and become the expert so you don’t have to fumble for words when the heat is turned up.


Study the information. Whether you have a week or a few seconds to consider the do’s, don’ts, and why’s, cut through the fluff and get to the facts and moral principles within the information you have. Put it through a thorough common sense test. On one hand, don’t read into it things that aren’t there, but on the other hand understand the spirit and principles behind them. As you piece together your ethical defense, make sure your reasoning can withstand outside criticism.

Analyze outcomes. If ethics were only about knowledge then rulebooks would achieve total compliance. The key question is, “Now that you have all the information, what will you do with it?” This is the critical point where common sense and good judgment kick in to make the final push for a decision.


There are some kinds of people who have high intelligence but lack basic common sense. The prisons are full of them. Common sense requires just the right balance of analytical reason, emotion, and street smarts. Most ethical dilemmas aren’t a matter of rocket science. Maybe the answers were sitting in your lap but you failed to see them. The solutions may be as close as a generous dose of common sense and a reality-check away.


Step out and make a choice. There’s no avoiding the fact that you must make ethical choices yourself. Choosing not to choose is in fact, a choice. With choice comes the responsibility to stand behind it. Your ability to stand behind an unpopular choice that you feel is ethically justified requires courage and character. This awkward situation is guaranteed to happen to those who live by principle.


Likewise, acknowledging a wrong choice and accepting responsibility takes great courage and humility. It’s a bold and risky move to step out on an ethical issue and make yourself vulnerable. Personal ethics should not be top secret. They should be obvious but not preachy. People in the workplace should have a good sense of where you stand.


Even if we are not able to control the ethics of others, we can certainly control our response. Knowing that most ethical decisions have basic common elements, keeps us from being caught off guard when we’re being hit from all sides. The workplace provides no shortage of new situations and people to keep you on your toes. By understanding the anatomy of what’s going on under the surface, you will better understand the dilemma at hand and know what you’re made of.

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