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How to Make Ethical Decisions

A Roadmap for Ethical Action

Ethical decision making can be a tricky thing because of competing interests, conflicts, and pressures imposed on you by others. Take, for example, a situation where your boss plays favorites in the workplace. You feel left out. You believe your boss may be involved in an inappropriate relationship with one of the favorites. What can you do? What should you do? How can you effectively express your feelings? Who should you turn to for support?

Ethical decision making can be summed up in four steps:

  1. Gather all the relevant facts. Do you have concrete evidence of the alleged bias – i.e., emails or social media postings? If not, keep a journal of who said what to whom; when; what was the response.
  2. Who might be affected by your actions? The obvious stakeholders are your boss, the person allegedly treated better than yourself; and yourself. Perhaps less obvious is the company and other employees. What you do sets a standard for other employees.
  3. What are your alternatives? You might go to someone in the organization you trust for advice – a close friend, mentor, or higher-up in the organization. Beware that such an action puts you at greater risk because once others are brought into the dilemma, you are depending on their support. What happens if the “trusted” adviser sides with your boss? What’s your next step?
  4. What will you do? You might decide to stay silent and let it play out. However, if the mistreatment continues it will be more difficult to raise these issues down the road. Also, once you forfeit the opportunity to bring the matter to the forefront, others may judge you more harshly if, for example, you were harassed for your actions. Why did you wait so long? If this were a sexual harassment case, you need to bring your matters of concern to the proper party immediately to “stop the bleeding” – i.e. HR or the legal department.

In my experience, a good way to focus on what is the right thing to do without going through each step of the model is to think about what’s known as the “Legal Test.” First formulated by ethicist Rushworth Kidder, you would start by asking: Is law breaking involved? If yes, the issue is one of obedience to the enforceable laws, as opposed to the unenforceable canons of moral code. If the answer is “yes, it is legal” there are three other tests for right vs. wrong.

The Smell Test

Does this course of action have about it an indefinable odor of corruption that makes you recoil? This is a “gut test” and a “gut level” determination. Always listen to your gut because it tests your internal code of morality at the psychological level.

The Front-Page Test

How would you feel if what you are about to do showed up tomorrow morning on the front pages of the local newspaper? What would your response be if a decision made in private suddenly became public? This is a test of your social mores.

The Mom Test

“If I were my Mother, what would I do?” or “If Mom knew about this what would she think?” This is about the moral exemplar who cares deeply about you and means a great deal to you. Put yourself in another person's shoes and think about what you are on the verge of doing. It might well be wrong.

Ethical decision making means to follow a path that gives you the moral courage to stand up for what you believe. Ethics is easier said than do. The good news is we become more ethical with practice. We learn by doing. We become better people by making decisions that rely on ethical values, such as honesty, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, and the pursuit of excellence, ad use them to guide our actions and decisions.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 21, 2017. Follow me on Twitter“Like” my Facebook page.