A Prescription for Ethics

According to leadership author Richard Daft, “ethical values in organizations are developed and strengthened primarily through values-based leadership (VBL), a relationship between leaders and followers that is based on shared, strongly internalized values that are advocated and acted upon by the leader. Leaders influence ethical values through their personal behaviour as well as through the organization’s systems and policies” (Daft, The Leadership Experience, 2005, p. 576)

 I like how Daft refers to Values-Based Leadership as a relationship where-as so many others refer to it as a process. At the foundation of that relationship is leader modelling, which is aligned with those shared (not dictated) values. I think this must surely hold true for families as well as organizations.

 Within the context of such a culture, we must always provide tools and skills to aid our people in working through conflict and making tough decisions. Those decisions are rarely black and white or what Rushworth Kidder refers to as right vs. wrong. They are normally in the grey zone, or what Kidder refers to as right vs. right or dilemma. The challenge when people become right vs. right conflicted is that although they seem opposing, they are fighting for values which are both right. For example, some would argue that euthanasia is right because it is compassionate, yet others would argue that it is not right because it does not represent their faith or legal compliance in some jurisdictions. The values of compassion or mercy are good values, as are freedom of religion or following the law.

 According to Linda Trevino, every person when faced with an ethical decision goes through a 3 step thinking process:

  1. Moral awareness - recognizing the existence of an ethical dilemma
  2. Moral judgment - deciding what is right
  3. Ethical behaviour - taking action to do the right thing

 If such is the process that people go through in making tough decisions, one must ask, “at which of the three stages does it go sideways, when an outcome is so morally wrong?” The answer, for many, according to my research, is step 3. People realize the existence of the dilemma and know what is the right or moral thing to do, yet choose not to, because, as Michael Josephson writes, they “do not have the will to do the right thing, even thought it may cost them more than they want to pay”.

 To aid people in working through tough dilemmas, I teach a 6-Step, prescriptive, Values-Based Decision Making process. The digital version of this process can be found at www.EthicsTool.com/ethics-analysis, which is free of charge. The tool is designed to help a person(s) look at a dilemma through both consequential and deontological thinking and provides a number of filters through which to process options. The 6-steps are: 

  1. Stop and Think
    • Often times people will intentionally place the pressure of time on an individual to force them into making a bad decision. Sometimes this pressure is self imposed or perceived. Take time, if you can, to reflect
  2. Identify the short and long term goals that can be involved in the decision:
    • Bring clarity to your personal or corporate goals. Often times people make bad decisions by focusing only on the immediate relief of a short term goal, but the decision when discovered, puts a long term goal at risk (a supervisor chooses to take safety short cuts because the customer is pushing for better time, however, if an accident occurs or even if it does not, our corporate reputation when (not if) the decision is found out is now at risk as well as our relationship with safety conscious customers.
  3. Identify the facts:
    • This is where you must dig with the; who, what, where, when, why, how questions. Do not make assumptions, but push for fact on everything. A little time now, spent asking good questions and turning over stones can save you grief later. How, often have we heard of employee terminations based upon assumed facts that were later proven incorrect.
  4. Brain storm as many options as you can and pick the top ideas to work through.
    • It is important not to eliminate anything at the initial stage, so as not to reduce the creative thinking process. If the issue is the customer is asking for a gratuitous gift in exchange for the work (a dilemma between the value of success and integrity) write it down as a possible solution and eliminate it later. Kidder teaches us to look for the Tri-lemma option; the option that addressed both values (in this case success and integrity).
  5. With 3-5 good possible solutions (or as many as you want really), start to run each solution through your various filters to see if it passes or fails:
    1. Does it pass our corporate core values;
    2. Does it pass the compliance test? Is it legal – by statute, law, and policy or generally accepted industry practice?
    3. Does it pass the Golden Rule; Do unto others, as you would have them due unto you (Matt 7:12). Although many refer to this as a Christian based filter, please visit uri.org and you will discover why John Maxwell refers to this as the universal ethical filter which can be applied anywhere in the world. I don't agree that it is the only filter that should be used, as it is predominantly deontological in nature and does not give enough weight to consequentialism.
    4. Apply the gut check. This filter can be accessed by considering your own personal core values (if you have not defined these, go to EthicsTool.com and click on the free core values button). Another way to apply this filter is to ask yourself, would you be proud to have your decision published in the news paper for all (family, friends, supervisor, customers, shareholders) to read. I must pause a moment here and emphasize, that you must be proud of your decision, but that does not mean the decision will be liked by all. People liking your decision is not necessarily a measure of it being the right thing to do.
  6. Once you have chosen the decision(s) that pass all the filters, you must identify (plan for), how you will review to ensure the decision had the outcome you desire and if not how would you be prepared to modify them. 

Although there is room for error within this model, I have witnessed it become part of organizational process within my customer base and be the foundation of the development of an ethical culture measured through employee work-passion, customer loyalty and shareholder success.


Brown, J.B. (2014). Values-Based Decision Making: An Applied Ethics Curriculum: Integrity Consulting Services Ltd. Alberta, Canada.

Daft, R. L. (2005). The leadership experience (3rd ed.). Mason, Ohio: Thomson/South-Western.

Josephson, M. (2002). In Wes Hanson (Ed.), Making Ethical Decisions. Los Angeles CA: The Josephson Institute.

Kidder, R. M. (1996). How good people make tough choices: Resolving the dilemmas of ethical living. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Maxwell, J. (2003). The Power of One (p. 16). Atlanta GA: Maximum Impact.

Maxwell, J. (2003). There's no such thing as business ethics (p. 38-48). United States: Warner Books.

Trevino, L. K., & Nelson, K. A. (2007). Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right (4th ed., p. 259). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Written by Brock