Four Ways to View Ethical Behavior

Ethics serve as a compass. Like a compass, there are four points of view for every situation. Photo from pxhere.com, no attribution.

Wall Street struggles with insider trading scandals. Washington drowns in waves of corruption. The military suffers from trust issues inside and outside the force after many high profile sexual assault cases. Everyone of these groups have published values. They have codes of ethics. They investigate allegations of wrong doing daily. In spite of their best efforts the same ethical problems reoccur.

Each group trains their people in their professed values and ethics. Many of us have to sit through classes teaching us what is right and what is wrong based on organizational principles. None of these classes explores the underpinnings of ethical thinking. The result is all the failures reported in the news on a regular basis. It does not have to be that way. My teaching your workforce about the foundation of your guiding principals and their application, your employees will have a better understanding how to apply those principals in daily situations.

In their book, When Generations Collide, Lynne C. Lancaster & David Stilman explore the differences between generations based on the differences of the history that defined the moments each grew up with. The thesis of the book is that understanding the forces that shaped each generation allows the others to understand the motivations behind the behaviors of each group of people. Young people are not lazy, but rather value their free time to associate with friends and family. Of course the Millennials are not the first to receive this criticism. Back in the day, Baby Boomers were also accused of failing to live up the values established by the Traditionalist Generation. Boomers thought globally and acted locally, well until they invented the internet. Understanding the forces that shaped the values of others creates harmonious relationships at work and home.

Ethics are the same. When an organization professes to value loyalty, the committee that established that as an important guiding principle envisioned that everyone will understand what loyalty means. Everyone does, but their understanding may not be the same as the company’s understanding. Each person brings their own history to the definition. One who has strong family ties is loyal to his family. Another employee who values friendships is loyal to her friends. A third employee is a third generation worker at the company. He benefited from many of the past policies that rewarded hard working employees. His loyalty lies with the company. From different points of view come different views of loyalty, each equally valid yet when viewed by the others, bound to create disagreement and tension. A study of ethical theory enables understanding of how others define ethical values such as loyalty, honor or duty.

Four major concepts of ethical thinking include:

  • Seeking to do the Greatest Good for Me,
  • Accomplish My Duties & Safeguard My Rights,
  • Making Choices that are Just and Fair for All,
  • Living Virtuous Life According to a Selected Code of Conduct.

Using a story will help put each theory into perspective. While shopping, a person notices another placing a package of meat into a pocket on the inside of a bulky coat. What is the ethical thing to do?

Every situation is a moment it time. Sometimes, like the flowing water on the right everything is a blur and feels like a decision is need immediately. Other times the water seems to flow slower allowing more time to make a decision. When people make quick decisions they rely on personal values. When there is more time, they can reflect on the values of the organization.
Above from pxhere.com no attribution.
Right by author.

If we view this conduct through the first lens of doing the greatest good, the person realizes that everyone else pays a consequence when people shoplift. It would appear from this point of view that reporting the theft to a store employee or the police is the correct course of action. However, by reporting the theft, the viewer may find he is required to make a written statement at the store. He then has to wait for the police to arrive and possibly testify in court. This may mean missing time for work and not getting paid. He may find he will struggle to buy food for his own family and decide the greatest good in this situation is to go the other way and do nothing.

Viewing the second theory of duties and rights it again appears the shopper has a duty to her fellow shoppers to report the theft to the manager. Her report results in the same sacrifices already described. She has a right to pay the lowest possible prices for the products sold in the store. People stealing food causes prices to rise. She reasons that by reporting she fulfills her duty of being a good citizen and protects her rights to pay lower prices. From her point of view, she must report the theft.

When the conduct is viewed by a person using the Just and Fair outlook, shopper may take into consideration things like the ability of the thief to pay as well as time he will be required to miss work to go to court. He may reason that overall it is not fair for everyone to pay higher prices, but also that the other should be able to purchase food at a reasonable rate which must be more than the thief is able to afford at this point in life. He may choose not to report the theft, but rather approach the thief and offer to buy the meat and perhaps even slip the thief a few dollars for other life essentials..

I the final theory, living virtuously, the shopper decides that virtue requires reporting. She determines everyone must pay for food at the store. If people do not pay then the store goes out of business and no one is able to buy food locally. Stealing is against the law no matter the reason (the selected code of conduct) and must not be tolerated. She would expect her neighbor to report someone stealing something from her home therefore she has a responsibility to report this theft. Reporting is the only virtuous thing to do.

A person’s view also depends on how close they are to the problem. The farther from the problem, the easier it is to see the whole problem. When one is against the wall, all they can see is a giant rock. As they step back they realize there are other ways to view the problem. Photos by author

As the example shows, the lens of one’s ethical view determines how principles such as loyalty, duty, and honor determine actions. Based upon the ethical point of view, none of the answers provided are incorrect. In fact you could use those very same points to argue the reverse outcome in each situation. Likewise in the workplace, when employees make decisions, they select choices based on their ethical lens. In order to maximize mission statements, value selection, guiding principals and visions for the future, leaders must train their employees about the guiding principals of the organization and how the organization expects employees to view behaviors. Failure to recognize employee focal points ensures failure of ethical decision making efforts. Take the time to teach junior leaders and their employees which lens is used by the key leaders. Learning how senior leaders view the world enables those junior leaders to make better choices and prepare for more senior positions. Youngsters are not lazy. Old people do not know everything. Learning how each group in the workplace views the world helps leader develop methods so they all view workplace behaviors with greater similarity and reduces those pesky scandals on the front page of the paper.

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