Are you ethical at work? These conundrums will test your mettle
An expert guide to navigating ethical conundrums at work
Posted September 04, 2019 08:23:11
Are you ethical at work? You might say yes, but tackling issues of right and wrong — and all the grey areas in between — can actually be very tricky.
"It’s not easy. It’s something that you can get better at, and it takes a whole lifetime. It can be a very difficult thing," says David Burfoot from the Ethics Centre in Sydney.
So what questions should you ask yourself when faced with an ethical dilemma in the workplace? And how do you define your moral compass?
We asked the experts to nut out some scenarios that might test our ethical mettle.
What are ethics, anyway?
First up, we need to know just how we define ethics, and how that translates into a workplace setting.
Mr Burfoot says it’s such a big question that he has to refer all the way back to Socrates.
"Socrates is a big person in the field of ethics and he described it as ‘what ought one to do?’," he tells RN’s This Working Life.
"’What ought’ means we have a choice about what we do. ‘One’ means it’s not what you or I would do in that situation, it’s what anybody should do in that situation. And ‘do’ is about action — it’s about how your thoughts manifest in the world."
Mr Burfoot says in a workplace setting, ethics are about "making decisions that align with your values and those of the organisation".
Vanessa Pigrum, the chief executive of the Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership in Melbourne, believes language is one of the biggest challenges around defining ethical frameworks.
"Some of the language is very abstract which can give the impression that ethics is this completely cool rational system to apply to the decisions in front of you," Ms Pigrum says.
"Ethics wraps up everything including your fears, your anticipation, your motivations — all of these things make it very complex, and equally an emotional decision as it is a rational one."
Put your ethics through their paces
To allay the often abstract nature of ethics, we put three scenarios to the experts, and asked them to talk us through their thinking.
Ethical dilemma: Upper management has an idea that you think is really bad, but you have to be the face of that idea and deliver the message. You know it’s contrary to evidence and best practice. What do you do?
Ms Pigrum says the first step when you’re feeling ethically torn is to ask what the facts are and consider the choices — even the "unpalatable" ones.
"Often we dismiss the choice that we could say no to something. We need to really consider that that is a real choice," she says.
Then we look at the moral dilemmas of every choice, and how they line up with your values.
Ms Pigrum says this scenario presents a number of options:
- "I could just do it, it doesn’t matter, there’s only a couple of people listening to the presentation."
- "I could just get away with doing it half-strength … I could water down the wording. I could be non-explicit in the detail."
- "I could decide to have some courage and correct the facts and push back, and go back to management and try to get a more accurate version put forward."
- "I could simply refuse. I could say my integrity is too important, I refuse to do it."
But with each decision, Ms Pigrum says, there are a range of risks, harms and benefits.
"It’s broader than your own personal pros and cons," she says.
She says you could consider questions like: "What is the impact of the decision on the people around me? What is the culture that I’m creating by making this choice? Who am I influencing? Who’s watching me? Am I setting a standard that others think is OK?"
Ethical dilemma: You work at a software company, and as part of your research you keep tabs on new updates and releases to your competitors’ software.
You notice that a major competitor’s most recent patch contains serious vulnerability which leaves hundreds of thousands of users’ private data exposed.
This would probably send lots of users to your product, which has a great reputation for security, but in the meantime a large number of users would be compromised.
Should you tell your competitor about the problem?
Mr Burfoot says this scenario throws up two major considerations.
"The first thing is you need to think about what is your gut reaction to the situation and what’s driving your behaviour as an employee of the organisation," he says.
Tribalism can play a big role in our decision-making.
"That means we try to stick with our own, we try to protect our own.
"You’re thinking about your own company, you’re thinking about your own customers — these people are not your customers. And so you have to think about ‘how much is that influencing my decision?’"
Ms Pigrum says in these decisions, you need to think carefully about which tribe you belong to.
"Is it my team? Is it my organisation? Is it the industry I’m in?" she explains.
"If you’re in an industry where there’s a lot of movement between companies, you may be inclined to think: ‘Actually, my tribe is the entire sector, and I need to treat this other company in the way I would expect to be treated. I will share that information, because at some point we will all be working together.’"
Mr Burfoot says "shadow values" may also influence your decision.
"They can be really powerful because they’re not mentioned but they underly what’s happening in an organisation and they influence decisions," he says.
"Some organisations will have a win-at-all-costs culture. If you’ve got that kind of culture then you’ll be more inclined to say: ‘Let the opposition make a mistake and compromise all this information’."
Ethical dilemma: Your boss confides in you that there will be redundancies which will likely effect your friend and colleague who is considering taking out a loan for a house.
You colleague asks you if you know whether there is going to be any restructuring. Do you tell them?
Ms Pigrum says this is a classic example of individual ethics colliding with what we’re expected to do at work.
Initially, she says it’s important to "go through how certain you are of the information that you’ve been given".
Then, you should consider your choices and the risks of going down each path — could your friendship be at stake, or your job?
"What is the harm that will happen if you share the information, or if you keep the information?" Ms Pigrum says.
"One of the core tenants of ethics is to minimise the harm that is happening to the people around you."
It comes back to that tribalism issue — is your tribe your friend, or your boss and your greater workplace?
Knowing your tribe will help you determine the best way forward.
Making the ethical choice, in any scenario
When defining your own moral compass, regardless of the scenario, there are some key questions to ask yourself, Mr Burfoot says.
- If what you did about this situation is on the front of the paper tomorrow morning, how would you feel?
- If your son or daughter asked you for advice in this situation, what would you tell them?
- That wise person in your head that you admire, what would they do in this situation?
- What kind of example do you want to leave your kids?
Mr Burfoot says while they may appear to be simple questions, they can really help "expose a situation".
"If we get to the end of those questions and we still have the same decision in mind, we’ll generally feel much more confident," he says.
Ms Pigrum says the onus isn’t all on an individual, either — workplaces also have a part to play.
"If you don’t foster a work environment where people feel safe to speak up, to question, to challenge or just to be curious about why an organisation is working in a particular way, then a terrible silence develops," she says.
"And in that silence, people can get away with all sorts of things."
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September 4, 2019 at 08:47AM