Dealing with Ethical Issues: A Beginner's Guide

Last Updated Feb 24, 2010 9:02 AM EST

Tips on Office Ethics

For a relatively junior member of an office team it can be particularly difficult to figure out how to deal with an ethical dilemma at work. Something about how your organization is doing business bothers you, but how do you raise the issue without alienating your co-workers and getting yourself sidelined?

It's a common office issue and one that's rarely addressed before we enter work. How to write a decent resume and work well with a team -- those are likely skills your education probably addressed, but there's little chance most non-MBAs have been given instructions on how to handle ethical issues productively. Mary Gentile, a biz school professor with a specialty in ethics, aims to remedy that this week on the HBR Conversation blog as she sets out the basics of raising ethical issues for beginners. Her approach involves four steps:
  • Realize that ethical dilemmas are a normal and predictable part of your job. Every manager, every finance officer, every marketing professional has to sort out complex (or not so complex) ethical issues. It goes with the territory, and recognizing this reduces the stress that can limit your confidence and capability to address these issues effectively.
  • Treat an ethical issue like any other business issue. Don't make self-righteous little speeches; instead, marshal your evidence and arguments, figure out who you need to talk to, and then make a strong business case for doing the right thing.
  • Tackle rationalizations head-on. If "everyone really does it," why do we have a policy against this behavior? If "it's not hurting anyone," why have customers sued other companies for this same practice? And so on.
  • Learn to play to the psychological biases of your listeners. For example, people have trouble focusing on long-term consequences, so try to identify short-term wins that would result from more ethical behavior. How you frame a problem makes a difference. Participants in a recent class discussion about a potential product recall over safety concerns became more open to the idea when the question put to them focused on how they could craft a message for the press and the buying public, rather than whether that message was the ethical approach to the situation.
Want more detail on Gentile's sensible succinct advice? Check out her article on how to keep your colleagues honest in this month's HBR.

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(Three wise monkeys image from Michal Osmenda, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.