November 11, 2021

Ethics in the Workplace – Understanding and Implementing an Ethical Approach to Decision-Making

Ethical behavior is vital to a business’s reputation with both the public and its workforce, and society is paying close attention to how businesses and individuals respond to the many issues that affect our daily lives. It is important to set yourself up for success by implementing an ethical approach to decision-making.

It would be nearly impossible to discuss every approach to ethical decision-making in the context of a single article, but we will discuss a handful of issues and idea that you can use to put yourself in the best position to make the ethical decision.

What Are Ethics?

Before we get into the decision-making process, it is important to understand what ethics are. The Dictionary of Psychology defines ethics as “a branch of philosophy concerned with that which is deemed acceptable in human behavior, with what is good or bad, right or wrong in human conduct in pursuit of goals and aims.”

This sounds a lot like morality, a concept that many people treat as interchangeable with ethics as they both deal with determining right from wrong. However, they are slightly different and can, at times, diverge or conflict with one another. The portion of the definition that best highlights the difference is the language “in pursuit of goals and aims.” While morality is something that’s personal and normative (that is, how we think things ought to be), ethics deals with standards for evaluating behavior as good or bad within a certain community, social setting, industry, or profession.

Understanding the Influences on Your Decision Making

How we perceive, remember, and respond to situations is influenced by internal and external factors.

One internal factor that has inserted itself into the mainstream is implicit biases, a bias or prejudice that is present, but not consciously held or recognized. These often grow out of stereotypes and stereotype-confirming events and allow us to overgeneralize, which can lead to unintended discrimination. It is important to remember, however, that these are completely natural and do not make one a bad person. Implicit biases can also be, and often are, based on personal experiences, and the lens in which they are viewed. The lens we use to view our past can distort reality, causing us to ignore facts and misconstrue our victories or failures and therefore can get in the way of any of us making the right ethical decision.

Externally, we are each affected in different ways by current and past events. Think back to when society first went on lock-down due to the emergence of the COVID-19 virus. We were all paying attention to how companies and individuals responded. Did Company A close its doors or continue with business as usual? Did your co-worker start wearing a mask, stay home, or continue as if nothing changed? We are asking the same or similar questions now that the economy has opened back up and people are returning to work, and we are judging businesses and people, rightly or wrongly, by the decisions they make.

We each respond to and internalize these influences in different ways, and we bring all of this into the workforce with us each day. In addition, businesses, managers, and human resources representatives are having to deal with a workforce that is more comfortable vocalizing their opinions, their disagreements, and their expectations.

This is why it is necessary for decision-makers, at all levels, to understand what affects their internal processes as well as understanding that others may not respond the same way.

Developing an Ethical Approach

In order to develop your own ethical approach to decision-making, it is important to understand the elements or characteristics that go into ethical decision making. These six characteristics embody ethical conduct:

  1. Honesty—being truthful in all your endeavors;
  2. Integrity—saying what you mean, delivering on what you promise, and standing for what is right;
  3. Respect—treating one another with dignity and fairness, appreciating the diversity of your workforce and the uniqueness of each employee;
  4. Responsibility—speaking up, without fear of retribution, and reporting concerns in the workplace, and whenever there is doubt, seek clarification and guidance;
  5. Citizenship—obeying the laws of the jurisdictions in which you operate and doing your part to make the communities in which you live and work better; and 
  6. Trust—building confidence through teamwork and open, candid communication.

One way to check whether you are making an ethical decision is to ask yourself whether you would be willing to broadcast your decision and your motives for all to see. If the answer is yes, then you should move forward with the decision. If the answer is no, it is probably best to re-evaluate your investigation and available alternatives. This will help you to avoid rationalizing your decision and allow you the opportunity to step back and engage in more critical thinking.

Steps for Implementing an Ethical Decision Approach

Once you have put these ethical qualities into practice, you have to give yourself the opportunity to make the right decision. First, you have to know the rules that govern your interactions, be that the laws or regulations in your industry, or the policies and procedures at your company. Second, give yourself the time to make an informed decision, do not rush through the decision- making process. Third, investigate. Seek out all available facts, whether they be good, bad, or indifferent. While you shouldn’t necessarily delay a decision because you think something else might be out there, you should feel comfortable that you made a reasonable investigation under the circumstances. Fourth, after completing your investigation, consider your available options and the possible consequences that may follow. Here is a good place to ask yourself whether you would be willing to broadcast each decision as your own. Finally, after you have made your decision, you have to follow up. Review, evaluate and, if necessary, adjust your process to make sure that you are approaching each decision ethically.

To view our webinar that contains a more in-depth discussion of this topic, please click here.