Wall Street struggles with insider trading scandals. Capital Hill drowns in waves of corruption. The military suffers from being blown up by sexual assault after sexual assault. All these organizations have professed values. They have codes of ethics. They investigate allegations of wrong doing daily. In spite of their best efforts the same problems continue to plague them.
Each of these organizations teach ethics. Many of us have sat through classes teaching us what is right and what is wrong based on organizational principles. None of these classes explores the underpinnings of ethical thinking and are therefore doomed to fail.
In their book, When Generations Collide, Lynne C. Lancaster & David Stilman explore the differences between generations based on the differences of the history that defined the moments each grew up with. The thesis of the book is that understanding the forces that shaped each generation allows the others to understand the motivations behind the behaviors of each group of people. Young people are not lazy, but rather value their free time to associate with friends and family. Boomers think globally and act locally. Understanding the forces that shaped the values of others creates harmonious relationships at work and home.
Ethics are the same. When an organization professes to value loyalty, the committee that established that as an important guiding principle envisioned that everyone understands what loyalty means. Everyone does, but brings their own history to the definition. One who has strong family ties is loyal to his family. Another employee who values friendships is loyal to her friends. A third employee is third generation at the company. He benefited from many of the past policies that rewarded hard working employees, his loyalty lies with the company. From different points of view come different views of loyalty each equally valid yet when viewed by the others, bound to create disagreement and tension. A study of ethical theory enables understanding of how others define ethical values such as loyalty, honor or duty.
Four major concepts of ethical thinking include:
- Seeking to do the Greatest Good for Me,
- Accomplish My Duties & Safeguard My Rights,
- Making Choices that are Just and Fair for All,
- Living Virtuous Life According to a Selected Code of Conduct.
Using a story will help put each theory into perspective. While shopping, a person notices another placing a package of meat into a pocket on the inside of a bulky coat. What is the ethical thing to do?
If we use the first theory, by reporting it he may find he is required to make a written statement, wait for police to arrive and possibly testify in court. This may mean missing time for work and not getting paid. From this point of view, the person may reason the best thing for him to do is nothing.
Using the second ethical view, the shopper may decide that she has a duty to report what she saw to the manager which may require the same sacrifices already described. In addition she has a right to pay the lowest possible prices. People stealing food causes prices to rise so by reporting she fulfills her duty and protects her rights.
Using the third outlook the shopper may take into consideration things like the ability of the thief to pay as well as missing work and going to court. He may reason that overall it is not fair for everyone to pay higher prices, but also that the other should be able to purchase food at a reasonable rate. He may choose not to report, but rather approach the thief and offer to buy the meat for the other.
I the final theory, the shopper decides that virtue requires reporting. She determines that if no one pays for the food than the store goes out of business and there is no place to shop. Stealing is against the law no matter the reason (the selected code of conduct) and must not be tolerated. Additionally if everyone turns a blind eye to theft, stealing will escalate resulting in the store closing. Reporting is the only virtuous thing to do.
As the example shows, the lens of one’s ethical view determines how principles such as loyalty, duty and honor focus actions. Based upon the ethical point of view none of the answers provided are incorrect. Likewise in the workplace, when employees make decisions, they select choices based on their ethical lens changing the focus to actions that match. In order to maximize mission statements, value selection, guiding principals and visions for the future, leaders must not only provide ethics training, but also train understanding which lenses employees use. Failure to recognize employee focal points ensures failure of ethical decision making efforts by leaders. Take the time to teach junior leaders and their employees which lens is used by the key leaders to view the world so they can make better choices.