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Managing Ethical Dilemmas

The phrase “business ethics” draws a predictable reaction from cynics. They insist that it’s a contradiction in terms. However, that’s simply not true. Senior managers in a vast majority of businesses believe it’s important for employees to act and think ethically. These businesses set standards of conduct to help employees recognize ethical problems and respond appropriately.

Common ethical problems

Many situations present decision-makers with ethical dilemmas. Often, these dilemmas spring from four common ethical problems: absence of transparency, unwarranted gain, lack of impartiality, and nonperformance of obligation. These problems can act as a prompt for employees to self-evaluate their decisions.

Absence of transparency

Everyone affected by a decision should have all relevant information about the decision- maker’s possible gain, obligations, and relationships. When relevant facts are hidden from one or more parties, the decision is made with an absence of transparency.

Unwarranted gain

Important business decisions are usually intended to cause a gain for the decision-maker’s company, and possibly for other companies. But when decision-makers seek an improper or unearned benefit for themselves or others, that’s an unwarranted gain.

Lack of impartiality

In an ideal world, decision-makers use rational criteria to make decisions; they don’t favor one party over others for personal reasons. However, decision-makers may let family relationships, friendships, or other biases influence them. When they do, the decision-makers lack impartiality.

Nonperformance of obligation

Employees have an obligation to perform the required duties of their jobs. They also have an obligation to act according to the company’s principles of conduct. When employees fail to meet their obligations or when they cause others to fail, that’s nonperformance of obligation.

There are many possible examples of common ethical problems which can provide context and guidance in the decision-making process. As examples are presented over the following, consider the situations and how you might behave in similar circumstances.

A political analyst helps a candidate write an important campaign speech. The analyst appears on a television news network to evaluate the speech as an impartial observer. He decides not to tell viewers of his role in writing the speech.

The political analyst displayed an absence of transparency. He withheld important information that would have allowed the viewers of the news network to see how his relationships influenced his opinion.

Decisions made in the workplace and within the government affect others, and problems can arise when the expectation of ethical behavior does not meet reality.

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