How to Practice Ethical Decision Making at Work

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Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey



It's often clear what's right and wrong in a situation, but occasionally, the lines can get a little blurry.


When you encounter so many diverse viewpoints on a daily basis, your wrong can seem right to someone else, and vice versa. In these instances, it's critical you and your team knows how to make ethical decisions for the company.→ Click here to download leadership lessons from HubSpot founder, Dharmesh  Shah [Free Guide].

Practicing ethical decision making can help you maintain an honest, supportive, and fair workplace culture, but it's also necessary to ensure your company doesn't get into legal trouble or face major losses down the road.

Making ethical decisions is easier said than done. Maybe your coworker lied to a client about a deal, but you personally like this colleague and want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Or, perhaps you're tempted to lie to your boss to avoid admitting your team missed a deadline. Whatever the case, it's critical you have a tangible set of steps to follow the next time you need to apply your ethical decision making skills at work. Let's take a look at those steps now.

Ethical Decision Making Model

When you're making a major decision for your company, it can be tempting to choose the easiest or most cost-effective course of action -- even if that option isn't the best from an ethical standpoint. The PLUS model, a set of questions designed to help you make a decision from an ethical point of view, can ensure you're doing the right thing.

The PLUS model is especially objective because it doesn't focus on revenue or profit, but rather urges leaders to take a legal and fair approach to a problem.

PLUS Model:

P = Policies and Procedures (Does this decision align with company policies?)

L = Legal (Does this decision violate any laws or regulations?)

U = Universal (Is this decision in line with core values and company culture? How does it relate to our organizational values?)

S = Self (Does it meet my standards of fairness and honesty?)

Once you've considered potential solutions using these questions as a guide, you're ready to implement the six necessary steps to make your decision.

Ethical Decision Making Process

When you come across a difficult problem that threatens your company's integrity or beliefs (or could be illegal), you'll want to employ these six steps to make an ethical decision.

Step One: Define the Problem

Use PLUS filters to define your problem, and how it might affect one of the PLUS acronyms. Is it illegal, or does it violate your company's values? Make sure you've outlined the full scope of the problem -- be honest with yourself about it, even if you're partially at fault.

Step Two: Seek Out Resources

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to reach an objective solution on your own. To fairly evaluate your problem, you'll want to seek out all available resources. These resources might be mentors, coworkers, or even friends and family, but they could also be professional guidelines and organizational policies. Make sure you've armed yourself with knowledge to understand the extent of the damage.

Step Three: Brainstorm a List of Potential Solutions

When you're brainstorming a list of potential solutions to your problem, you don't want to only consider what's been done before. Stay open to new and different ideas, and urge other people to share their advice. Consider outside resources, including what other companies have done. Ultimately you'll want a list of at least three to five potential solutions. This way, you avoid feeling like it's an either/or situation.

Step Four: Evaluate Those Alternatives

Dive into your list of potential solutions, and consider all positive and negative consequences of taking each action. It's important you consider how likely those consequences are to occur, as well. You'll again want to refer to resources, guidelines, and standards. For instance, you might decide one solution has only one negative consequence, but that negative consequence has a high likelihood of happening. Another solution has two negative consequences, but both are extremely unlikely. These are important factors to weigh when making your decision.

Step Five: Make Your Decision, and Implement It

At this stage, you've got all the information you need to make a fair and ethical decision. If you've made the decision alone but need to share it with your team, create a proposal outlining why you chose this route, and what alternatives you considered, so they can understand your steps. Transparency is key. Your team needs to understand you used appropriate and objective measures to find a solution.

Step Six: Evaluate Your Decision

Now that you've implemented your solution, decide whether your problem was fixed or not. If there are unforeseen consequences, perhaps you want to consider alternative measures to combat the problem, or refer to outside guidance.

Ethical Decision Making Examples

Let's take a look at a few ethical decision making examples, to give you a better understanding of how to act if anything like this happens to you.

1. Your team misses an important deadline, and you're tempted to tell your boss you reached it anyway.

It might seem like a good idea to tell your boss your team is on-track, and then work quietly to make sure that becomes a reality, but in the long-run this will only hurt you and your team. First, if you don't examine why your team missed the deadline, you won't know how to fix the problem moving forward. Additionally, your boss is meant to be a helpful resource for you, and could help you combat the issue. Lying could destroy your reputation as a leader and employee if your team or boss finds out, and it will be difficult to then prove your integrity. Figure out the guidelines or steps you need to take, and follow those.

2. Your coworker is giving her sister a major discount on your product.

It makes sense -- family is important, after all. But it's not fair or ethical if some of your customers are receiving discounts simply because of who they are, and can even be seen as a form of discrimination. If the public finds out you don't follow fair rules when it comes to pricing and discounts, your entire company's integrity is at risk. Either mention to your coworker that you don't feel it's fair, or report the issue to your team leader.

3. You're close to finalizing a deal when you find out some of the information you've provided the client isn't true.

You've worked so hard to form a relationship with your client and provide them with persuasive and helpful information, and you've finally reached the end. Just when they're ready to sign the deal, though, your coworker takes a look at your slides and lets you know some of the information is outdated and is no longer applicable to the deal. It's especially difficult because your job relies on you hitting quotas, and you know your boss and team will be incredibly impressed with this deal when you close it.

Unfortunately, you could get into legal trouble for lying in a contract, and you don't want to set a precedent of lying and essentially stealing from clients to close deals. Be upfront and own up to the misinformation, and then work with the client to create a new deal. Ideally, the client will appreciate your honesty. If not, at least you didn't win a deal through false measures, which might've gotten you into bigger trouble down the road.

Using the PLUS model and these six steps, as well as your own judgment and the opinions of your team, should arm you with all the information you need to make ethical decisions at work even when they're difficult. For more decision making advice, check out The Ultimate Guide to Decision Making.

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