Work-Place Ethics




One of the most important responsibilities that we place on the leaders of organizations is upholding the highest standards of ethical behavior.  In a nutshell, this comes down to doing the right thing even when the wrong thing might also have some attraction.  Work-place ethics are most often related to decision-making processes.  Most leaders face the opportunity to choose between alternative courses of action in their work situations and other aspects of their lives. Work-place ethics refer to choosing the option that is determined to be the moral or legal ďrightĒ choice, even if the other alternative(s) are very attractive and even if you can ďget away withĒ the less ethical choice.  




Leaders are often put in decisions where they must choose among options that vary in their degree of ethical behavior.  One of the reasons why this is a common issue for leaders is that there are often competing priorities for businesses1.  On the one hand, organizations exist to generate profits for their shareholders, which may encourage leaders to act in ways that are less ethical in order to cut costs or increase revenues.  On the other hand, organizations are made up of human beings who are personally invested in the company and often live in the communities in which they work.  If the individuals are harmed by decisions that maximize company profitability, then the decision is not an ethical one.  Only one stakeholder is getting their needs met, at the expense of other stakeholders. 

According to one theory, leaders may make bad ethical decisions and rationalize these decisions2:  For example, a leader may tell themselves it is not really illegal or immoral, or perhaps that it will never be found out or that their bad behavior will be rewarded. 




If you are worried about how a decision will impact others or how others will perceive your decision, then chances are ethics are a consideration.  You might start by asking yourself some questions3:


  1. How would you define the problem if you stood on the other side of the fence?
  2. What is your intention in making this decision?
  3. Whom could your decision or action injure?
  4. Are you confident that your position will be as valid over a long period of time as it seems now?
  5. Could you disclose without qualm your decision or action to your boss, your CEO, the board of directors, your family, society as a whole?



A key reason why decisions that have ethical implications may be difficult for leaders to make is that they may be encountering situations that they have never had to deal with before.  This lack of experience may be characterized by a great deal of ambiguity in terms of what to do.  Some basic principles may be useful in helping to guide the ethical decision-making process:


1.Donít allow personal gains to outweigh the good of the organization

2.Recognize all perspectives when making an ethical decision

3.Respect people and their rights

4.Keep promises and honor contracts

5.Use feelings to help decide morale dilemmas

6.Get all the facts

7.Treat all people fairly

8.Define who you are, your company & personal values

9.Always challenge your decision to be in line with your values, beliefs and morals

10.  Never compromise your integrity

11.  Ethical decisions must use fair procedures and account for unjust action

12.  Donít choose the easiest answer; consider all the options (donít just go for a quick fix)

13.  Donít overstep the bounds of what outsiders will tolerate while balancing companyís & outsiderís interest

14.  Consider the risk of setting & trying to achieve overly ambitious goals

15.  Communicate that all employees have a responsibility to keep the companyís moral & ethical standards in check

16.  When in doubt, donít

17.  Instill proper checks & balances of  ethical behavior that donít create bottlenecks

18.  When possible seek the input of effected individuals at a moral crossroads


(1) Sherwin, D.S. (1983). The ethical roots of the business system.  Harvard Business Review.  1-9.

(2) Gellerman, S.W.  (1986). Why good managers make bad ethical choices.   Harvard Business Review.  1-7.


(3) Nash, L.L. (1981).  Ethics without the sermon.  Harvard Business Review.  79-89.

~ Contributed by Cathy Bush