Ethical decision making is now a critical competitive factor

How a leader bridges the gap between ethical decision making and real life choices tells you much about that person.

Sometimes though, decades pass before such behaviours surface for review. Nearly 40 years ago UK political leaders tried to shelve the introduction of Child Benefits. We now know what really happened. We can judge their ethical performance and find it wanting.

malcolm WicksA new biography from a conscience-stricken young civil servant shows he agonised at the time:


“it could not be right that Ministers at the most senior level should manipulate internal discussions in such a way that the cabinet itself was misled.”

With his political masters failing  to come clean on their plans he leaked the story to the press. The resulting storm led to a leadership re-think and the eventual introduction of a critical piece of welfare reform.

With new information we can see how those senior leaders were willing  to mislead. They were prepared to deceive and behave in a thoroughly unethical way–until called to account.

outrageIs demanding certain basic values from leaders such as honesty, integrity and transparency reasonable?  Right now many critics for example, regard the current reaction of UK politicians to the surveillance revelations as  “comatose”. There is an absence of moral outrage.

The political responses to the 2008 banking crisis seem equally feeble. Despite much sound and fury nothing much has altered, apart from a few minor tweaks to the financial system.  The bankers, who caused the problem have been allowed to scuttle back to an almost unchanged environment.

Politicians are not alone in failing to act in a trustworthy way. For example, those who managed and led the BBC for the last few decades now stand accused of being complacent about the sexual abuse of up to 1000 children. Many seem to have known what was happening yet failed to act. Judged solely by inaction these managers were both negligent and unethical.

Heads of business organisations too face ever more demands to demonstrate upright behaviour. What this means in practice continues to be a source high pay centreof debate. For example, can encouraging low morale, sickness, loyalty or poor productivity be seen as responsible? Most people would conclude not. Yet the latest report by the High Pay Centre think tank says these stem from the huge gaps between the highest and lowest paid employees. The implication of  allowing such gaps to continue have clear ethical implications for action.

The Ethical Filter

Business leaders face constant moral choices involving policies, procedures, finances, personnel issues, contracts or performance management. Ask if they consider themselves to be responsible people the majority would probably claim to be so. But such  claims are irrelevant until judged against actions and decisions. In making these it can be helpful to put all choices through an  “ethical filter”, based around a series of simple questions:

1)     Will we violate any laws or workplace policies?

2)     Must I lie, misrepresent facts or withhold important information?

3)     Might the result harm people deliberately or by mistake?

4)     Am I going to feel good about this, and be proud to tell my family what I’ve done?

5)     What would we change if this were to show up in the media and why?

6)     How might our actions cause unfair treatment of employees, customers and other stakeholders?

In our globalised world, ethical decision making will increasingly be seen as a critical competitive factor.  It should not take decades to decide whether the choices made being made by leaders are right or wrong.

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