It’s easy to know what’s ethical when your choices are clear-cut.
If you hit a parked car, should you leave your contact information for the owner? Should you use insider information to make a stock market trade? Should you lie on your expense report?
But there’s a huge grey zone where the choices are not so clear-cut.
What would you do if a close friend confided he had been embezzling from your boss?
What would you tell your teenage son if he came home from his first job at a grocery store and said the owner had instructed him to pack rotten strawberries in the bottom of the containers? You might tell him too bad, but he needs to keep the job or that everyone does this. Or you might tell him to quit because these are not the values you want him to live by. Or you might lay out both sides of the issue and encourage him to make up his own mind.
Ethical decision-making can be challenging in our personal lives. And, when you are in a role that impacts others, it becomes even more critical.
Recently a lawyer shared an ethical dilemma she was wrestling with. A judge had asked for her endorsement for reelection. She thought the opposing candidate was stronger. But this judge was scheduled to hear an important case of hers, and she was concerned that because of the subjective nature of the case, her refusal might negatively influence his judgment.
The right thing to do is not always clear
In 1988 and again in 2006, PBS ran an in-depth series on Ethics in America investigating common ethical dilemmas of scientists, journalists, physicians, jurists, businesspeople, and politicians.
During one segment, they presented this hypothetical “what would you do if” situation to several journalists: During the Viet Nam war, a journalist was traveling with the North Vietnamese so that he might encounter atrocities committed by the South Vietnamese and their American allies. The North Vietnamese discovered a contingent of American troops and prepared to ambush them.
ABC anchor Peter Jennings said he would not film the incident and might try to warn the American troops. CBS’s Mike Wallace reproached Jennings sternly saying, “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American, but you’re a reporter covering combat . . . and I’m at a loss to understand why you would not have covered that story.” The right thing to do is not always clear.
There’s a large gray zone between clear-cut right and wrong. It’s easy to use it as an excuse to not worry about being ethical. It’s easy to charge ahead without thinking, and then rationalize your behavior after the fact.
But not paying attention to the ethical considerations can lead to decisions with unintended consequences.
“There’s no right way to do a wrong thing.” — Anonymous
Three questions for an ethics check
In their book The Power of Ethical Management, Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale describe a simple three-question ethics check to help you navigate through the gray zone.
1. Is it legal? Not only within the legal system, but also within the organization’s policies. Does it go against a written or unwritten code of behavior?
This question gets you to look at existing standards.
2. Is it balanced? Will the decision be fair to everyone involved or will someone lose heavily at the expense of another’s gain – in the short-term and the long-term?
This question activates your rational thinking and sense of fairness.
3. How will it make me feel about myself? Unethical acts erode self-esteem. Ask yourself questions like: Would I feel good if my decision were published in the newspaper? Would I feel good if my family knew about it?
This question is about you and your personal standards of morality.
Doing is harder than knowing
The hardest part of doing an ethics check is not finding the answer, but taking action – having the courage and fortitude to behave ethically.
It becomes even more challenging when you look around and see our leaders behaving unethically, not modeling the standards you tell your children they should live by.
It’s tempting to make the excuse that this is the way things are done. Or to toss away your moral compass because you feel your personal desires are more important.
We are given the freedom to choose to live ethically or to choose to live otherwise. Exercising this freedom with integrity and humility makes us strong. It’s the same as in building physical strength. When you push against resistance you build your muscles. Tough ethical problems make you strong. Exercising that muscle regularly makes you strongest.
It might seem easier not to grapple with this – not to label our dilemmas as ethical ones, not to hold ourselves and our leaders to an ethical standard, and to dismiss ethics for the sake of expediency.
Yet today, more than ever, if we don’t face our dilemmas, if we don’t choose to live ethical lives, to run ethical organizations, and to build ethical communities, ultimately we will pay a heavy price – for ourselves, our children, and our future.
The sense of losing something often causes the dilemmas in the hypothetical examples of “rotten strawberries” and “endorsing judge”. In the business environment that is often the case as well. Doing the right thing is clear when perceived personal “loss” is set aside. Doing the right thing often involves no direct short term compensation. Being a good human being has lifetime rewards.
You remind me of the contribution of Nobel prize winner John Nash whose theory of economics is based on the premise that no one can improve their personal circumstance without taking the circumstances of others into account. As you point out so eloquently, the real reward is in focus on the long run.
Good food for thought. I like the suggestion to consider both what’s legal and your own sense of right and wrong. And your point that in the end it’s about what we do, not what we think.
Indeed. We are known by our actions. Thanks for adding to the conversation, James.
Jesse, this is such an important and powerful article because it teaches and answer the question, WHY is it necessary for one to live an ethical life? (Really, WHY?)
Thank you, Paulo. I think mostly my article teaches “how.” I think we must each discover our “why” for ourselves for it to be deeply meaningful. My encouragement is to ask yourself the questions.
Thank you for this important piece and for addressing one of the most essential areas of ethics and leadership — the gray space. We need to be having this conversation across all sectors and around the world, while raising children to think critically not only about what is right and wrong, but how to navigate the inevitable gray.
Well said, Sharon. These need to be ongoing conversations as we seem to be surrounded by more and more leaders who are camped out in the gray zone.
This is a topic I take so seriously because I know the gray areas seem to spread wider and affect more situations than ever. With so many options, rules, variables and constant change, it’s no longer keeping up with the evolution of work, it’s having to interpret it once we catch up. Gray is the new black which was once white. Your truth covers the implications of why it is so important to choosing to do the right thing even if it takes a while to get to the right thing. Sometimes we need to figure out what is the least wrong and do that. I use the word perfect a lot even though I know there is rarely perfection. It is, however, what I recognize as the best possible for the situation. That’s a perfect as it comes.
An interesting point, Jane – that sometimes the choice is for the least wrong. When the ethical choice is not crystal clear, as you point out, there is often no perfect solution. Much thanks for adding your insights.
Important and timely. When so-called leaders act only in their limited self-interest, we must speak up. Otherwise, our silence become complicity. At the same time, I think we can also use your wise questions ( as raised by Blanchard and Peale) as a litmus test for what actions we take. Thanks, Jesse
Good point, Eileen. What is the ethical response to unethical actions by those in position of power? According to Dante, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”
I have my top personal values posted prominently in my office since that is where I spend a large portion of my time. I find that they can be a compass for the ethical decisions that present themselves; they are often helpful, as is “sleeping on it”. Jesse, I especially like your question “How will it make me feel about myself?” and will add it to my ethical decision-making tactics.
You remind me of the importance of not succumbing to the pressure for quick decisions. We don’t always recognize we’re in the gray zone and need time to recognize the clues that there’s more to consider. Thanks also for highlighting the value of identifying your values. These are all great suggestions to help us be more aware and intentional.
Thankyou for this article. I can truly connect with what you say and I firmly agree with you. However, following the ethical path, no matter how well supported by policies, professional codes and protocols can still be a very difficult and lonely path to tread. It requires an inner strength and self belief because there may be negative repercussions from those who may not have the same degree of ethics/integrity. Ultimately integrity is everything: to be able to look in the mirror and know that we acted ethically and with honesty means we can always hold our heads high.
well said, Sue. It can be a difficult and lonely path at time. I like to say that “without integrity, your other values don’t matter.”
absolutely, but sadly not always followed by all. Thankyou for your wisdom.
Nice job, Jesse, and very timely. Even having the presence of mind to stop and think through whether a situation involves our values is a big step. Thank you!
Agree. Unless we develop a habit of intentionality, we can head down a slippery slope and not realize we crossed the line until it’s too late.