Harvard Business Online

Raising Ethical Issues at Work


Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 22, 2010 3:15 PM

Responding to intense pressure for short-term results, people working for corporations often cut corners that they shouldn't. We use all kinds of rationalizations to excuse these behaviors—everything from "everyone does it" to "nobody's getting hurt by this" to "I'd get fired if I complained."

Most of us want to behave ethically, and we also know when something isn't right. But it can be very hard to speak up in support of our beliefs. In recent years, I've explored the question of how people behave in ethically compromised situations. My observations—along with a whole raft of research in the fields of social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and behavioral economics—have helped me to understand what conditions make it easier to speak up effectively. I describe my findings in an article in this month's HBR, "Keeping Your Colleagues Honest."

Here's how you can deal with ethical issues in the workplace.

First, 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.

Next, 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.

Third, tackle the 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.

Fourth, 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.

When raising an ethical issue, people seem to be most effective when they script what they'll say and how they'll proceed. It often helps to get some peer coaching, as well. It occurred to me recently that it might be interesting to do some scripting and peer coaching in this space (anonymously, where appropriate).

With that in mind, I invite you to share a story of a time when you found a persuasive argument or approach for voicing your values. Alternatively, share a situation you're thinking about right now (with details disguised, of course) and invite suggestions from peers for how to deal with it.


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