Ethical Decision-Making Quick Test

Often, making ethical decisions in the work place is a delicate balancing act between competing forces. Easy decisions like " should I embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars" are obvious and generally do not require much help or analysis to determine whether they are ethical or not. It's a bit tougher when the decision is between two competing right things to do. Having a quick test allows you to make the easy decisions and recognize when the decision may be a bit more difficult. If at any point, you cannot legitimately answer the question, you might consider asking someone else for help. Talk to your supervisor or, if you are lucky enough to have an ethics officer or ethics helpline, talk to whoever can help you make the final decision. Remember, generally the decisions are yours and you have to live with the results, so be prepared to accept responsibility for them.

Is it legal?

This is the first filter through which your ethical decision will pass. Legal and ethical are not equivalent concepts. A business law professor in an MBA course once stated that the law is generally about 12 years behind society's concept of ethical practices. Don't simply stop your ethical decision making process at whether an action is legal. It may not be against the law but it may also not be the right thing to do. If the answer is no or raises objections, you must stop, reject the action and take another course. If it is legal, go on to the next criteria.

How would it look in the news?

Okay, you've determined that your action is legal. Now, how would it look to the rest of your community, the nation and ever more frequently, the world? It's one thing for you or even your close associates to know about your decisions and actions but entirely another when people outside your inner circle know about them. How will the people you don't know perceive your actions? Would you be embarrassed to have these events known? How would your company perceive publicity surrounding your actions? If the answer is unacceptable, stop, reject the action and take another course. If the answer is acceptable, go on to the next criteria.

Does it comply with our company values?

What are your company values? Okay, let's first assume your company values are legitimate ones. Do your actions conform to them? For example: if your values say something about treating employees fairly, do you have a legitimate process for applying discipline and/or discharge? Do managers fire people in the heat of an emotional upheaval or is there an appropriate escalation of discipline before the company allows such a step? If your ethical dilemma is obviously at odds with your company values, stop, reject the action and take another course. If your action conforms to your corporate values, move on to the next criteria.

Under the same circumstances, would I want the result of this decision to happen to everyone? Am I treating others as I want to be treated?

How do you want to be treated? If you've made a mistake do you take responsibility for it? Have you accepted appropriate discipline with an attitude conducive to correcting the behavior? The word discipline has its origins in the Greek word meaning to teach not to punish (re: disciple). If you've done something well, do you expect an appropriate reward, even if it is only verbal? Do you give that same level of reward to your staff or coworkers? For decisions concerning others, is the result of the action fair? Does the person affected get only the appropriate degree of reward or discipline? Would others agree with your perception of the outcome? If no, stop, reject the action and take another course. If yes, move on to the next criteria.

How will I feel after the decision is known? Can I face myself the next morning?

This is the man in the mirror story (updated to include the woman in the mirror). When you shave or apply your makeup and you think of the action you will take, can you look yourself in the mirror and know you are satisfied you've done the right thing? How do you feel about the decision? Even if it is a tough decision and the outcome would affect someone negatively, have you acted out of the overall best interest of everyone concerned? If the answer is no, stop, reject the action and find another course. If yes, take the action with good confidence you've resolved your dilemma.

Often with subsequent information we regret our actions but we also realize that we make decisions with the information available at the time. If the decision does not need to be made immediately, have you given your proposed action enough reflection to feel confident about its outcome?

This process may seem long and involved but the more you use it, the more quickly you can work through the decision review process on subsequent occasions. Every time you discard a particular option run the next alternative through this same practice. Taking the time to review decisions with an ethical perspective is critical to making the right choices. When a company's people focus on their ethical behavior, everyone involved is better off.

 Bruce Hamm - Contact Bruce at and visit

The opinions expressed by Cynergy, its Executive Advisors, Affiliates and Associates are intended to be general in nature, mere suggestions and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.