The Ethics Sage – What does it take to make Ethical Decisions in the Workplace?

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James Pilant

The Ethics Sage
The Ethics Sage

What does it take to make Ethical Decisions in the Workplace?

I often discuss ethical decision making in my Accounting Ethics class because accountants and auditors are part of the internal organization structure and have an important role in preventing and detecting misconduct (i.e., occupational and financial statement fraud). I typically start by discussing virtue ethics that posits ethical people possess certain character traits that pre-dispose them to do the right thing when conflicts arise or ethical dilemmas exist. I favor virtue ethics because it provides a basis for evaluating the decision as ethical, which traditional philosophical reasoning methods do as well, and also it can be used to evaluate the ethics of the person making the decision. In other words, ethical decisions and decision-makers reflect honesty, integrity, fairness, due care, and responsibility and accountability in decision making.

One model I draw on to support the discussion is James Rest’s Model of Moral Development. In 1983, Rest proposed a four-stage model of the ethical decision-making process that links to the cognitive processes that individuals use in ethical decision making; that is, it depicts how an individual first identifies an ethical dilemma and reasons through what is the right thing to do, and then continues through her intention and finally courage to act ethically. Here is a brief outline of the model.

Moral Sensitivity

The first step in moral behavior requires that the individual interpret the situation as moral by noticing the moral features of the decision. A moral person ought to have a certain preference about how to behave and then ought to behave in accordance with that preference. Moral features are built around consideration of how our actions affect others and whether we respect the rights of others in decision making.

Moral Judgment

Moral judgment entails finding the ideal solution to an ethical dilemma. It starts with cognition, the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. It continues by making assumptions and emphasizing some things over others. Typically, philosophical reasoning methods help in the process. An integral part of virtue ethics is the application of practical wisdom, gained through years of experience and developing good habits.

Moral Motivation

Moral motivation reflects the degree of commitment to taking the moral course of action, valuing moral values over other values, and taking personal responsibility for moral outcomes. Moral motivation reflects an individual’s willingness to place ethical values (e.g., honesty, integrity, trustworthiness) ahead of non-ethical values (e.g., wealth and fame) that relate to self-interest. A whistleblower who acts out of moral intent is willing to accept the risk of retaliation in order to follow her ethical beliefs.

Moral Character

Individuals do not always behave in accordance with their ethical intention. The whistleblower may know what the right thing to do is but lack the moral courage to do it. Rest describes moral character as persistence in completing a moral task, having courage, over-coming temptation, and implementing processes that serve a moral goal. A person with a strong ethical character is more likely to carry out ethical intentions with ethical action than one with a weak character because she is better able to withstand pressures from higher-ups in the organization to overlook wrongdoing.

Here are some tips in making ethical decisions in the workplace.

1. Consider how your actions affect others. All decisions have stakeholder effects and ethical people consider how those parties will be affected if I they decide to do one thing or another.
2. Do no harm. Your actions and decisions should never harm another party. One exception is whistleblowing where the greater good may dictate that a decision-maker should report wrongdoing whenever the action of one party harms others (i.e., investors and creditors). A good example is fraudulent financial statements where, under certain circumstances, the accountant or auditor should blow the whistle on fraud by contacting the SEC.
3. Make decisions that are universal. That is, ask yourself whether you would want others to resolve the conflict by taking the same action you are about to take for similar reasons in similar situations. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then your actions have universal appeal. Universality requires that your decisions respect the rights of others.
4. Reflect before deciding. As a final step, think about how you would feel if your actions and decisions appear on the front pages of a newspaper. Would you be proud to defend them; explain them to loved ones; follow-up with ethical behavior in the workplace?

The reason virtue ethics is an excellent tool of ethical decision-making is no matter how “good” an individual wants to be, in the workplace competing forces come into play such as loyalty to one’s supervisor or the organization. It takes a person of courage – integrity – to place the good of others (i.e., public interest) ahead of one’s own self-interest and that of one’s employer. Virtue ethics recognizes that the person must be honest, trustworthy, and fair-minded, and so on for the decision itself to reflect these characteristics.

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