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What are ethics?

Ethics is a discipline or system of moral principals governing human action and interactions. It deals with the rightness or wrongness of actions and the goodness or badness of motives and ends.

Here are three key questions to ask when facing an ethical dilemma, along with explanations of why they’re essential:

1. Is it legal?

•            Why it matters: The most fundamental test is whether the action violates laws or regulations. If something is illegal, it’s almost always unethical. Even if an action feels like the “right” thing in your heart, it cannot be ethical if it breaks established laws.

2. Is it balanced and fair?

•            Why it matters: Ethical decisions shouldn’t create significant winners and losers or disproportionately advantage one party over another. Consider all potentially affected stakeholders and how the decision would impact them. Strive for balance and fairness, aiming to avoid situations where someone benefits at the great expense of someone else.

3. How will it make me feel about myself?

•            Why it matters: This question taps into your internal moral compass. Imagine your decision splashed across the front page of a newspaper or broadcasted online. Would you feel proud or ashamed? If the idea of your actions being made public fills you with unease, it’s a vital sign that the choice may not align with your values or ethical standards.

Here’s how to use these questions in practice:

When you’re facing a tough decision, take the time to consider all three of these questions carefully. Be honest and critical in your assessments. It’s likely not the most ethical choice if something fails any of these tests.

Here’s a breakdown of common factors that contribute to unethical decision-making. It’s important to note that these reasons often interact, creating complex situations:

Individual Factors

  • Cognitive biases: Our brains often rely on mental shortcuts that can unconsciously favour self-interest, leading to flawed ethical judgments. Examples include justifying behaviours due to perceived external pressures or downplaying consequences.
  • Moral disengagement: This means finding ways to rationalise unethical action. People might tell themselves things like: “Everyone does it”, “It’s not a big deal”, or blame the victim for reducing personal guilt.
  • Greed & Self-Interest: The motivation for personal gain (money, power, status) can easily override ethical considerations.
  • Low empathy  A lack of understanding of how decisions impact others can make unethical choices easier.

Environmental Factors

  • Workplace culture: An environment where shortcuts, rule-bending, or mistreatment of others is normalised makes unethical behaviour seem acceptable.
  • Pressure to perform: Unrealistic targets, excessive competition, or a general “results at any cost” attitude puts employees in impossible situations where unethical choices seem justified.
  • Lack of consequences:  If people see others profiting from unethical actions without significant punishment, it erodes the incentive to ‘do the right thing’.
  • Fear of speaking up: Concerns about retaliation or having their concerns dismissed create a culture of silence, allowing unethical behaviour to persist.

Situational Factors

  • Complex dilemmas: Truly “grey area” situations can pose difficulty even for conscientious individuals, particularly when decisions must be made quickly.
  • Ambiguous rules: If a policy or guideline allows for multiple interpretations, people might use loopholes to justify questionable behaviour.
  • Peer influence: Seeing others, especially trusted coworkers, behave unethically weakens our moral resolve.

Important Notes

•            Rarely a single cause: Unethical decisions are often the result of multiple factors playing together. Someone facing intense financial pressure due to personal situations is even more vulnerable to the temptations of unethical conduct in a toxic workplace environment.

•            ” Good” people can make unethical choices: Many situations slowly chip away at moral principles rather than people being overtly ‘bad’. Understanding the contributing factors helps organisations build defences against ethical lapses.

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