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Abdullah Telmesani Ph.D.

Quality Insider

Balancing the Ethics Formula

A two-step tool for guiding corporate and personal choices

Published: Monday, August 23, 2010 - 06:00

Achieving higher levels of ethical conduct is a balancing act. For corporations, ethical attitude and sustainable success are achieved by striking a balance between the bottom line and the interests of employees and the community. Employees’ ethical behavior and success, on the other hand, are achieved by balancing their personal interests with their companies’ interest.

The formula above seems to be partially compromised, according to Deloitte’s recent 2010 Ethics & Workplace survey. In their struggle to survive the recession, some companies have had to make drastic decisions that are not typical to their corporate cultural norms. These decisions and their subsequent actions naturally lead to employees’ uncertainty about their organizations’ intentions.

This feeling of uncertainty and lack of clarity shaped the responses of 46 percent of the employees surveyed, who indicated that a lack of transparent leadership communication would drive them to seek new employment opportunities. Furthermore, 48 percent of employed Americans who plan to look for a new job when the economy is more stable, cite their reason for leaving as the loss of trust in their employer as a result of how business and operational decisions were handled during the last two years.

Although the ethical formula outlined above may be partially compromised, it did not collapse. Deloitte’s survey indicates that, in spite of the feelings of uncertainty about their companies’ decisions and actions, 72 percent of those surveyed still believe that employers are responsive to their work/life balance needs. In essence, these employees believe that their employers are still honoring the fundamentals of the ethics formula: Employers are at least attempting to balance their companies’ interests with their employees’ interests. The survey does not go into the second part of the formula, which is related to companies’ attitudes toward the interests of their communities.

As in the case of employers, employees’ ethical formula can also become partially compromised under pressure and times of uncertainty. This is indicated by Deloitte’s 2007 survey when 91 percent of employees surveyed indicated they are more likely to behave ethically at work when they have good career/life fits. This statement indicates that employees’ ethics formula of balancing their interests with their companies’ interests can also be compromised under pressure.

The balance of the ethics formula, in light of the above, could be compromised under pressure for the employers and the employees, especially in times of difficulty and uncertainty. In attempting to minimize compromising the ethics formula, companies have elaborate codes of ethics to guide employees’ and employers’ choices.

From my experience, balancing the ethics formula must be motivated from within us, not from codes of ethics. Making choices between ethical and nonethical actions are among the most personal decisions, which we don’t usually like to discuss with others. Thus, it’s important to simplify the formula and make it readily available to employees and employers whenever needed, and with total privacy.

I’ve devised an “ethical tool kit,” which is comprised of two tests. The following example describes these tests and indicates their applicability to professional practice.

While evaluating tenders from various suppliers, John noticed how close the bids were in terms of prices and quality. During this evaluation, John met a friend, who informed him indirectly that one of the suppliers was willing to pay for a personal trip for him and his family if he overlooked one of the conditions that this supplier did not satisfy.

John faced a dilemma. Overlooking this supplier’s condition would not affect his company negatively; no one, in fact, would even notice it. In trying to arrive at a decision, John followed the ethical tool kit as follows:

Step 1: The internal test. John checked his gut feeling about awarding the contract to this company. He realized he felt uncomfortable about it, but knowing that awarding the contract to this company would not negatively affect his own organization made him feel OK about awarding the contract to that specific supplier. To arrive at the right decision, John followed the second step of the test.

Step 2: The disclosure test. John considered whether he would feel good about letting his colleagues, family, and others know about the basis for awarding the contract to this supplier. Thinking about that made it clear to him that awarding the contract to this supplier would not be ethical because he would not be comfortable with letting others know what influenced his decision.

 

The ethics tool kit can be used by employees and employers at all levels. It can also be a useful guide or exercise for board members and executive committees to clarify the ethical basis for executive choices.

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About The Author

Abdullah Telmesani Ph.D.’s picture

Abdullah Telmesani Ph.D.

Abdullah Telmesani, Ph.D., holds a master’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught university courses in architecture, professional practice, and ethics before becoming a consultant. Before writing The Balanced Way (BookSurge Publishing, 2009), Telmesani authored two books in Arabic titled Between Contentment and Excellence, and The Balanced Success.