Is Your Decision-Making Process Ethical?

Worried businesswoman receiving notificationDyonne was feeling conflicted.  The decision made by her executive team of peers was well-researched, vetted by a diverse group, and followed a similar set of decisions made in the industry.  Yet Dyonne’s gut was unsettled.  This decision made her feel squeamish.  As she shared it in confidence with a trusted advisor, she admitted that she didn’t want to have her name associated with it.  The bottom line was that Dyonne felt the decision had some ethical problems that she had a hard time reconciling.

How often have you felt a twinge when you’ve ‘gone with the flow’ to agree to a group decision that you felt had some questionable ethical underpinnings?  How many times have you struggled with an inner voice that told you to speak up about moral concerns before a decision was made?

Questions of ethics are with us at all times.  “Moral issues greet us each morning in the newspaper, confront us in the memos on our desks, nag us from our children’s soccer fields, and bid us good night on the evening news. We are bombarded daily with questions about the justice of our foreign policy, the morality of medical technologies that can prolong our lives, the rights of the homeless, the fairness of our children’s teachers to the diverse students in their classrooms.”  So starts an introduction to a set of work by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Ethical dilemmas are inherent in our work and daily lives.

The ethics of decision-making is a constant enough concern for leaders that many professional organizations, like accounting, project management, and medicine, have codified frameworks for ethical decision-making into their professional codes of conduct.  For the project management profession, for example, the professional association introduces their framework as “steps that can be used to guide an individual in the project management profession through a process to make a decision when confronted with an ethical dilemma.”

So how can you, individually, and you as a leader inculcating the best into your organization’s culture, establish your own framework to guide decision-making?  Here is a brief guide, based on some of the best ideas from academic and business sources.

  • Remain alert to morally sensitive situations
    • Keep your moral compass active and engaged.
    • Don’t allow expediency to overtake the decision-making process.
  • Actively explore the ethical issue(s) when a decision is to be made. Five principles are commonly considered:
    • Autonomy – This is the principle of not usurping others’ rights. Would our decision exploit anyone?  Would it affect them without their free and informed consent?  Would they feel we had treated them paternalistically?  Would we hedge on any promises we’ve made?
    • Non-maleficence – This is the ‘do no harm’ principle. Could the result of the decision be harmful or disadvantageous to a person or group?
    • Beneficence – This is the ‘chance to do good’ principle. Is there an opportunity to do something advantageous for others, or to remove the potential for harm (e.g. a recall)?
    • Justice – This is the fairness principle. Are we treating all people fairly?  Are any groups or people disadvantaged?  Are we respecting rights or entitlements that others would consider applicable, even if there is no legal requirement?  Are our procedures set up to produce fair results?
    • Fidelity –This is the trust principle. Could the result of the decision call into question norms that have been honored for a long time, even if unspoken?  Are we living up to our professional roles?  Are we being true to organizational mission and reputation?  Are we honoring the trust relationships we have with others?
  • Assure adherence to your professional principles and roles
    • Do you have duties to due diligence, fair dealing, full disclosure, etc. that need to be reviewed?
    • Consider to whom you owe duties, whether formal or informal: clients, customers, vendors, employer, colleagues, direct reports – and what your assumed duty is to each
  • Bring reliable data to bear in your decisions
    • Know what you know and what you don’t know
    • Bring in data from a variety of sources, not just the ones that favor a single viewpoint
    • Use ‘ethically informed sources’ such as professional norms, legal precedents, and wisdom from your religious or cultural traditions to help guide decisions
    • Press for decisions to be made on facts and precedents, not on situational gut.
  • Consider and adjust if there are barriers to ethical decision-making
    • Is one person’s power likely to sway the decision?
    • Is the pressure for conformity too high to come to a well-considered decision?
    • Are there any potential conflicts of interest?
  • Assure you consider multiple options
    • Don’t immediately decide for the first one
    • Use a framework of factors for judging each alternative
  • Test possible decisions against a set of potential impacts
    • How would the decision affect the ethical choices others would need to make – are you making it easier or harder for them to do the right thing?
    • Will the decision maintain or strain trust relationships I/we have with others?
  • Do an overview of the alternatives against an ethical barometer, such as this set of questions from Santa Clara University:
    • Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm (least regret)?
    • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?
    • Which option best treats people equally or proportionately?
    • Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members?
    • Which option best leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?
  • Finally, give the selected decision the ultimate test of ethical clarity:
    • If I told someone I respect of my decision, or if we had to defend this decision to the public, how would it be viewed?
    • If I/we imagined the most respected, experienced, virtuous people we know making this decision, is this the choice they would have made?

Lee R. Raymond, the Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil from 1999 to 2005, said, “Ethical conduct is something that becomes inherent in an organization over a long period of time.”  He recognized that it is a learned practice that needs nurturing in individuals and groups.  Is it time for you to step up as a leader to initiate your own personal and organizational framework for ethical decision-making?

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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