Ethical Dilemmas: Doing the Right Thing
We as people will often face situations where we have to decide between competing values. Values that are often both positive yet the decision we make is going to be painful to either someone or a group that we care about. In such situations, the best course of action to take is not always clear, yet the choice that’s made can have major consequences. As a leader, the choices we make will always influence how others see us and in turn affect what we can get accomplished moving forward. So how do we select the best option when faced with an ethical dilemma?
Ethics in Motion
The meaning of “ethics” may be hard to pin-down but a generally accepted definition of ethics is that they are moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior. In more detail, ethics is really two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded and substantiated standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, fairness, obligations, benefits to society, or specific virtues. For example, standards that imposes the reasonable obligations to refrain from murder, rape, stealing, assault, slander, and fraud. Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s own ethical standards. A community’s laws, feelings, and social norms can deviate from what is “ethical.” So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded.
If you’ve ever been confronted with a difficult dilemma that:
- Isn’t subject to laws, regulations, or rules
- Involves a conflict between two (often positive) values
- Is subject to pressure from outside forces
- Is complex and open to different interpretations
Then you’ve most likely been confronted with an ethical dilemma.
Choosing between right and wrong
Being and acting ethically is really not choosing between right and wrong. Oh…If it were only that simple. Acting ethically means not causing needless harm or violating the law. That, however, is just the minimum. Acting ethically also means that we must sometimes balance two “rights” and then choose between them.
Mind-set is key to awareness
Normally, doing the right thing seems intuitive, doesn’t it? At least that’s how it appears on television or in the movies J. You might think that it’s easy to understand the concept of ethical behavior. Probably even considering yourself an ethical person on the job (most of us do). So, how does all this become a problem?
We need to beware of the misguided thoughts that can prevent us from seeing ethical issues. “I need my paycheck.” “No one cares.” “No one understands what I face.” “It’s no big deal.” Any of these phrases sound familiar? Sometimes, it’s these are thoughts like “my company wants me to do this” or “no one will know” that prevent us from seeing the dilemma. Sometimes it is complacency or the feeling that “everyone else does it” that causes us to not apply the appropriate values to a business decision. If you find yourself thinking or feeling these things, understand that may need change your mind-set in order to be aware of and respond appropriately to ethical dilemmas. Why? If you don’t, you will most likely make a decision that you will not want to admit to later on.
4 Questions that can help to determine available options:
- Will the action I’m considering negatively impact others?
- Will the action I’m considering violate any laws or your organization’s policies?
- Will others feel I owe them something – or they will owe me something – if I take the action I’m considering?
- Could the action I’m considering appear improper?
If the answer to all four of the above questions is no, then you can probably take the action you’re considering. You probably don’t really have an ethical dilemma. However, if the answer to any question is “yes” or “I don’t know,” then stop. You probably shouldn’t take the action without examining it a little further. Try gathering more information or asking someone you trust for some input.
An Interesting Case Study
In an attempt to determine the ethics of the population at large, reporters for a regional newspaper decided to set up a little test. With a hidden camera running, a cashier who had been given extra money added some of the extra cash to each customer’s change. How many customers would do the right thing – if they noticed the error – and return the extra money to the cashier? It turned out that about 40% realized right away and returned the cash. The other 60% left the store with the money. Predictably, some that walked away actually didn’t notice the extra money. But some that had noticed admitted that they decided to keep it in a sort of “finders’ keepers, losers’ weepers” spirit. An expert asked about these results pointed out that studies show making ethical compromises on such small dilemmas can lead to doing the same with bigger ones.
The next time you are faced with an ethical dilemma, please understand at least two things: (1) accept that there are sometimes no easy answers that can be made to resolve a dilemma without hurting someone and (2) you are not the only person that has been placed in such a situation where the decision needing to be made will not please everyone involved.
Until next time….Cheers and do the right thing!