Any organization must be prepared to deal with ethical crises, dilemmas, and quandaries. What I propose here is a three-stage approach to potential and actual crises. It is intended to be broadly applicable to any stakeholder in an organization (employee, manager, director, customer, supplier, etc.). Obviously, if the organization has an ethics office, ethics ombudsman, ethics hotline, or other structures and processes for handling such questions and crises, these steps should be normally taken through those channels.
STAGE ONE: RECOGNIZE.
The first important challenge is to determine whether the matter which concerns us is a true ethical dilemma—or not. Two simple, straightforward, compliance-oriented questions get us started: (1) Is it illegal? Compliance with the law is usually the minimum requirement of ethics—even though ethics is always more than mere compliance, and laws themselves have on occasion been unethical. (2) Does it violate my company’s (or profession’s) values and ethics code or policy?
Four additional questions can help identify serious ethical issues that might otherwise slip past our laws and codes: (3) Could someone be seriously harmed? This is probably the single best, most broadly-shared criterion of what is ethically-wrong. (4) Does it violate your own (or your colleague’s) conscience, values, or principles? (5) Would you like this done to you or your loved ones? This “Golden Rule” of Christianity has parallels and echoes in many of the world’s religions and philosophies. (6) Would this practice continue if it were publicized? Most unethical acts flourish in secrecy and are stopped by publicity.
STAGE TWO: ANALYZE.
If some or all of the preceding six tests are coming up “positive” for an ethics infection, it is irresponsible not to go on to stage two and carry out the best analysis we can under the circumstances. Four aspects need careful analysis: (1) Clarify your role and responsibility, the reasons for your getting involved. You may be told that it is none of your business. If it is very serious, you may get involved anyway, just because you are a caring human being. (2) Clarify the relevant facts of the case. Many apparent ethical dilemmas are resolved by this step alone. (3) Clarify the ethical values and principles at stake. You will need to weigh these (sometimes competing) values and later justify your proposal by appealing to values. (4) Clarify the action-options you have and the probable/possible outcomes of each. This, especially the prediction of consequences, is not easy. What is required here is careful research and critical thinking. Some real creativity and imagination are also sorely needed in the face of hard ethical challenges. Can a win-win solution be found or invented that will minimize damage and harm—and maximize positive outcomes? So often when bad, unethical things occur, the way they are handled bungles things even worse. Finally, as much as possible, get advice from others. Share the challenge, the analysis, and the responsibility. There is safety and wisdom in ethical teamwork. Don’t try to be an individualistic hero if you have even the slightest chance to work with others in responding to an ethical crisis.
STAGE THREE: RESOLVE.
Some ethical crises will blow over and disappear. Others will not and we must “bite the bullet” and act. We need to close off our analytical, imaginative, and consultative process and choose the best, most responsible option we can come up with. It takes all of those classic virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation to get it right here, but we must act, even though we know we are not perfect. In the short-term, we hope the crisis can be resolved by appealing directly to the principal offender(s). If voluntary reform is insufficient, disciplinary steps must be taken. If those responsible fail to act to resolve the unethical situation, the extreme measure of “whistle-blowing” (publicly or anonymously) may be necessary, going around the offending individual (or company) to authorities inside or outside the context and forcing the issue until the offense is stopped and the harm is addressed. An ethics challenge is never fully addressed until we follow through on those immediate actions with longer-term, deeper reforms of the structures, procedures, and circumstances that caused or allowed that ethical problem to occur in the first place. To fail to do this deeper work is to invite further crises in an organization. If it is also possible to follow through on the ethical offenders themselves, to help them see what went wrong and avoid making the same mistake again, so much the better for all concerned.
David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.