Ethical Litmus Tests

Knowing what’s right is critical to good ethics at work. Sounds easy enough, but beyond generalities, it seems impossible for people to agree on what is “right.” When debating whether or not an action is ethical, put it to a test – a litmus test.


Outside of science and politics, we don’t think about litmus tests often, but we actually use them all the time. We put people through litmus tests for compatibility when considering a friend or relationship. We put places through litmus tests when deciding where to live. We filter food, clothing, and all kinds of things through an array of tests. Whether recognized or not, we use litmus tests all the time to judge good, bad, right, or wrong.


Think of an ethical decision in the workplace. Maybe you struggle with how to ethically present your products or how to use company property or whether to follow a particular procedure. Consider the following five ethical litmus tests to help you decide what is the right thing to do. Answering “no” to one or more of the following suggests that you need to either develop an alternative strategy or seek counsel with the issue.


Honesty Test: At the most basic level, is your ethical action honest? Think “big picture honesty,” not what you or your small circle of influence deems as being honest. Our society has pretty generally accepted principles of telling the truth. Every child knows what a lie is. We adults make the concept way too complicated with our “what if’s,” “but’s,” and rationalizations. What parts of “honesty is the best policy” do we sometimes forget?


Legal Test: Ethical people obey the law, even if they don’t agree with it. In addition to this, an ethical person stays informed so he or she doesn’t end up in a crisis due to ignorance. This is especially critical in the workplace. Off the job, it’s pretty easy to stay out of trouble if you simply drive the speed limit, pay your taxes, and keep your nose out of trouble. However, on the job, obeying the law requires diligence to keep on top of the numerous policies, ethical codes, legal statutes, federal/state/local codes and rules, environmental & safety laws, best practices, standard operating procedures, and so on. The stakes are high and life can get complicated very quickly in the professional world. Playing dumb with regard to the legal arena is a roulette game that serves to only buy time.


Conscience Test: This is the most subjective. Although feelings can be unreliable, there is significance to your conscience or “gut feeling.” When considering an ethical action, can you do it in good conscience? Can you look back with no regrets and sleep well at night? This not an emotion but a “gut feeling” that runs deeper than feelings of greed, stress, or anger. Listen to your conscience. If you feel uncomfortable with something, take note of your gut feeling. Don’t ignore it.


Consequences Test: Actions have consequences. Be ready for them. Step outside your world and understand the consequences of your actions both intended and unintended. Ask the practical who, what, & where questions. It can be tough to think about others if we are accustomed to thinking about ourselves. Don’t forget the people factor or stakeholders (i.e. coworkers, customers, stock holders, third parties, etc.). How will your ethical decision affect them? You need to consider physical and emotional costs to both individuals and the organization.


Publicity Test: If everyone knew about your action, would you still do it? You should be able to do business in the open without worrying about who’s watching you. Would you be able to explain your actions before your manager or peers without anxiety? Before you consider doing something, imagine how you would feel if it were reported in the evening news. Remember that an ethical person, doing the right thing, has nothing to hide.


Knowing what is right can be as simple as five “Yeses.” Of course, that’s the first step. Then comes the task of living with what happens next and the future litmus test to come. But it gets easier. These tests are more than a check-off list for a crisis, but part of a pattern of behavior that will become an ingrained part of your character and will last a lifetime.