Thinking through ethical dilemmas

After a year of running the SABPP Ethics in HR workshops for members, it is clear that HR practitioners are constantly faced with very difficult choices to make in the workplace. Some situations are pretty clear in that legal or regulatory issues are involved, so analysing and deciding on what to do is more an interpretation of compliance requirements.

However, because HR work often involves balancing of interests, decisions to be made will entail ethical dilemmas. These occur when:

  • you feel that you are being asked to do things that are against your personal moral values;
  • you feel you have a conflict between two or more of your own values;
  • you recognise that a decision will disadvantage one person while advantaging another.

A general example of the first situation would be where someone working in a pharmaceutical company is asked to consent to overcharging a hospital. A general example of the second would be where a doctor is conflicted between duty to colleagues and duty of care to the patients. A general example of the third is where a teacher has to choose which class member to award a prize to when there are two or more very worthy candidates.

In HR work, examples of these are:

  • advising on a promotion selection when one candidate is known to be cheating on his/her marriage partner – if the HR practitioner holds strong views on fidelity within marriage, this might influence his/her advice;
  • advising a manager on how to deal with a difficult team member – the duty to assist the manager to maintain a productive and engaged team might conflict with the duty to assist the employee to maintain his or her job security;
  • advising a manager on selection of employees for retrenchment – when retrenchment for the group of employees would have negative economic or social effects to quite a different degree for individuals in the group, but the agreed selection criteria focus strongly on skills rather than personal circumstances.

The SABPP provides a quick test for HR practitioners to check whether a decision they are making or advising on is ethical or not, and provides free bookmarks for members depicting this test.  Formulated by Professor Leon van Vuuren from the Ethics Institute, five questions should be asked:

According to a recent article by Professor David Clutterbuck , the key to working through such issues is a six-step process. The steps are:

  1. Articulate the problem
  2. Consider the context
  3. Consider the implications
  4. What other opinions/ perspectives may be relevant?
  5. Balance the arguments
  6. The final check

Articulate the problem

Find someone to discuss the problem with. This step is vital, because you may not have had time to think the issue through on your own, or may be avoiding doing so, because the conflict is too painful. It’s common to rationalise away the conflict, in the hope that the discomfort will fade. The starting point is often therefore to recognise that you are deeply confused. You may need help to understand the consequences of your behaviour / decisions. The unethical behaviour may appear to be the norm in your organisation and you may feel that you are the one out of step.

A coach, mentor or any skilled helping professional can be helpful in these situations. They can help you understand and describe the issue, by asking questions such as:

  • Who does it affect, how and why?
  • What is the nature of the conflict of interest?
  • What specific personal, organizational and /or societal values are involved?
  • What are the conflicts that you feel within yourself? (What is making you feel uncomfortable?)

Consider the context

Here we try to understand the scope of the issue and the environment, in which it takes place, using questions such as:

  • Who is involved, directly and indirectly?
  • Is this a new issue, or an old one in a new guise?
  • What are your specific and general responsibilities?
  • Who has been consulted?
  • Who needs to be consulted?
  • Is there a relevant code of conduct or guideline?
  • What is the general ethical climate here?

Consider the implications

Now we can begin to explore what will or is likely to happen as a result of following one path or another. Very often, our attention is focused on the small picture and the short-term. By widening our view and looking to the longer term, we begin to create a different perspective.

  • What risks are involved? (Safety, financial, reputational etc)
  • What precedents may be set by this decision?
  • What would be the impact if this were done on a much larger scale?
  • Would the implications be different if this were played out publicly or privately?

What other options or perspective may be relevant?

Here we are widening the perspective even further, using questions such as

  • What might you be avoiding acknowledging?
  • Who might provide a robust challenge to your thinking?
  • How can you make other people feel more comfortable about speaking up?
  • Have you genuinely sought and listened to dissenting views?

A useful approach here is to explore the issue from the perspective of people, who are affected by it. “Walking in someone else’s shoes” helps us appreciate how they might feel – and how we might feel in their place.

Balance the arguments

By now, the issue will have become both more complex (in the sense that there is a lot more information to consider) and simpler — because the choices, while they may be finely balanced, are much clearer. We can make a choice about what is the right thing to do by comparing choices both rationally and emotionally. We realise that no decision is going to be purely right or wrong, but that an ethical decision is one that tries to achieve a fair and compassionate balance. Useful questions include:

  • What would an impartial adviser see as fair?
  • What priorities should we apply to conflicting objectives and values?
  • What are the “zones of ethical acceptability” and what lies outside them?

The final check

This last step is equally important, but easy to miss out, because it requires an extra burst of energy and self-honesty at the end of what is likely to have been a gruelling and painful conversation. Useful questions we can ask include:

  • What decision-making biases might you be applying without realising?
  • How honest are you being with yourself? (How pure are your motives?)
  • Do you truly feel this is the right thing to do?
  • If we were to give this issue more time, would we come to a different conclusion?

Implementing the decision about the most ethical way forward poses its own problems. When someone takes an ethical stance, the reaction of other people is often very negative, because now their integrity is being questioned. The instinctive responses are fear and resentment. So you may also need help to develop a strategy for helping others overcome their instinctive hostility and engage in open, considerate dialogue.

The key to this stage is to focus on values and on your sense of your ideal self. You can engage with peers or more senior colleagues by asking them to confirm the values that they and the organisation espouse and try to live up to. Helping them to work out where the organisation might not be living up to its values is less likely to evoke the sense of personal threat. And discussing how they collectively might be able to live up to the organisational values and their personal values more consistently and more thoroughly is still relatively unthreatening. But from that point it is a lot easier to focus on specific behaviours or policies, which need to be changed.

This softly approach won’t always work. Sometimes blowing the whistle is the only recourse. However, a discussion partner can be a great support in working out tactics, giving encouragement and rehearsing difficult conversations. Therefore, thinking and working through ethical dilemmas in a focused way using a step-by-step process provides an opportunity for HR professionals to raise their game in fulfilling their ethical and professional duties in the workplace.

This article was written by Dr Penny Abbott with acknowledgement to Professor David Clutterbuck of the David Clutterbuck Partnership, in association with MDQ Associates in South Africa. Dr Abbott is the Research and Policy Advisor for the SABPP.

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