By:  Harold Fogelberg

Today’s society views business organizations as moral agents (i.e., being socially responsible).  Businesses are held accountable for not just what is legal, but what is also ethical.  Often there is a big difference between what we have the right to do and what is right to do.  So, what is business ethics?  In simple terms, it is the application of moral values in decision-making; that is, ultimately doing the right thing.  Following are 7 steps that can be helpful in working through a problem or decision that has ethical ramifications.

  1. State the ethics issues and list or identify all the significant facts related to the issue.   Often it can be in the form of a question like “Is it ethically justifiable to….” Or “Is it morally right to….”
  2. Determine and rank all the relevant values involved.  This includes both ethical values (e.g. trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness, et al) as well as non-ethical values (e.g. working hard, safety and security, family, et al).  This can be particularly difficult when 2 good values are conflicting like truth vs. loyalty or justice vs. mercy. 
  3. Identify the major resources that can assist in evaluating the issue.   Peers, counsel, trusted subordinates, trusted consultants, et al.
  4. Identify key stakeholders.  (Those who have a claim or a stake in the decision; those who will be impacted).   In business, examples would be investors/owners, clients/customers, employees, communities, regulators, etc.
  5. Consider all reasonable alternatives, options or decision paths.  Focus on the practical and realistic options.
  6.  Evaluate consequences of each decision alternative.  Ponder these questions:    Does this option do real harm or less harm than any of the others?  Yes, unfortunately, many decisions result in harm where the best option is to choose the least harmful (e.g. in healthcare, military, job layoffs, pilots, etc.)  Would this option violate anyone’s basic rights?  Would I want my choice of this option published on the front page of the newspaper?  Would I be comfortable telling my grandmother about what I just did?  What does my organization’s values say about this?
  7.  Make the ethical decision and review / monitor the results.