decision makingMaking ethical decisions in organisations has seldom been entirely simple.  It has become even more challenging as society becomes increasingly complex.

With more people needing to collaborate more quickly, under the oversight of regulators and their ever-changing regulations, it is often daunting to make the right ethical decision.

Complexity affects almost everyone. It has both enriched and confounded our personal and work lives. Part of this complexity is the speed of change, which has noticeably accelerated in recent decades.

So for example, the time taken to market new products or services from concept to development to implementation to launch, has dramatically truncated.

This has partly occurred through the emergence of online collaboration spanning countries, time zones and hemispheres.  With the acceleration of many aspects of commerce, the number of those involved has also noticeably increased. This is adding yet another layer of complexity.

Many of those participating come from diverse backgrounds. They do not necessarily share a common language, education or religious belief. Yet they are all stakeholders in a long and fast moving process.

Alongside these changes, regulators too have expanded their scope and interest in many areas of working life.  While conducting their role they promulgate rules adding further complexity to help or hinder the decision processes.

Complexity and ethical choice

regulationThe first step in dealing with complexity and ethical choice is to become clear on the legal and regulatory environment.  Ideally, its implications would be entirely obvious. In practice, the rules are usually subject to varied interpretation.

In addition, employees, vendors or others may seek to interpret these to their personal advantage.  It is therefore important to start with a solid understanding of both the nature of the rules, their implications and the accompanying risks.

A second step is therefore to assess the nature of the likely risk—is it high, medium or low? In addition, there may be different perspectives to take into account such as those of customers, regulators, vendors or investors.

Thirdly, managing complexity and ethical choices means any decision must withstand scrutiny in the public’s mind.  This may be different in Bangladesh than in Brighton.  This means taking into account “what’s important” in these locations.  When in doubt seek expert cultural advice.

A fourth step in managing complexity and ethics is to shine a light on:

  1. Duty: Map the different responsibilities of each party.  List the regulatory and contract obligations and then highlight specific areas of conflict.
  2. Loyalty:  Define the levels of loyalty to understand the future hopes of all those involved. This is particularly important since where money is concerned loyalty may not survive. 
  3. Restraint:   Business ethics usually involve some restraint on profits. There is a balance to strike between investor and management expectations.  Here the issue is finding solid evidence about what is the most appropriate sort of restraint and why. 
  4. Confirmation bias:   There is a natural human tendency to confirm our in-built forms of bias.  We may like to think we are searching for an objective truth. Often though it is simply easier to look for ways to validate our judgements.An example is Groupthink. Rather than robust discussion, groups fail to uncover their differences, avoid conflict and make comfortable choices or ones to please the leader.Give particular attention to:
  • Do I want to believe it?  In general, when people want to believe something, they will do, regardless of facts.
  • Must I believe it?  When confronted with a controversial situation where this is the question, most people will not believe it.

Despite the impact of speed, deliberately use reflection to assess the complex ethical situation. Consider using the counsel of trusted advisors to unravel complex ethical choices.

Finally, sometimes it helps to describe complex ethical choices as if writing a personal journal. It can be a simple but revealing way to tease out the best possible ethical decision. journal


Bruce Anderson is the Chief Ethics Officer for Health Net, Inc., a publicly traded managed care organization based in California. Bruce directs the corporate compliance and ethics programs.