Ethics Studies Say "Focus on the Right Thing" and "Leaders Matter"

Two interesting studies shed some light on business decision making about ethical issues. First there is this one, which claims that people are either ends focused or means focused when making ethical decisions, and that ends focused people risk making poor decisions when there is no visible harm. It boils down to the same old utilitarian versus deontological view of ethics. Or, for those of you not covering this in Philosophy 101, whether or not are duty based (do it because it is the right thing to do) or outcome based (the greatest good for the greatest number).

Reynolds found that people who focus primarily on the ends recognize ethical issues when harm is done but are much less sensitive to ethical issues that seem to only involve a violation of the means (someone lied, broke a promise, violated a policy, etc.). When it appears that no harm is done, ends-based decision-makers are much less inclined to see the issue as an ethical one. Means-focused people, however, recognize both harmful situations and those situations in which the means used were an ethical issue.

Being married to an auditor has really driven home the means based ethics for me. Mrs. Businesspundit doesn't exactly buy all that "it all balances in the end" stuff, or any other ends-based arguments. Her view is that things are supposed to be done a certain way, and they should be done that way or else she will write you up. It doesn't matter that there was no harm or that you weren't trying to defraud. The rules exist to protect you and the company, so do things the way you are supposed to.

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I think the problem is that sometimes we forget that decisions to use a certain install certain rules about what is and isn't acceptable were made for a reason, and those reasons are not always visible to us so they are easy to ignore. (Yes, on occasion they become irrelevant and need to be changed.)

The article concludes with something you should all know already.

"The findings of this study suggest that when attempting to improve moral awareness in organizations, leaders should take the initiative to better educate managers about the moral value of rules, principles and guidelines more generally," Reynolds said.

The same idea is driven home by this study, which basically says role models matter when it comes to ethics. So the leaders in your company need to be ethical. As a side note, I like this quote about journalists:

"Journalists as role models seem to elicit more questionable ethical attitudes in students," said Perry, who heads OSU's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. "Coaches generally also seem to have a negative effect on the ethical attitudes of their charges."

And I assume the negative aspect of coaching comes from the win-at-all-costs types.

My advice is that it is always better to make a tough ethical decision and suffer some minor negative consequences today than to hide it and suffer major negative consequences later.

  • Anonymous

    Have you considered the idea that minor negative consequences today may have major negative consequences tomorrow? That amplification and passage of time can work several ways within our individual neuroscience.

  • Jason

    Involving “ethics” is a messy term. Strictly speaking, anything that involves agency involves ethics (what we ought to do). The pRoblem is not so much that one system is better then the other, but that people prefer not to seriously conduct ethical inquiries.

    As a general rule of thumb though, using an ends-based approach involves far more conscious thought/calculations then a means-based approach. Thus, if you’re working in a company, the quick and dirty way of implementing a code of ethics is by a set of rules. Humans tend to follow the path of least resistance, so most will accept the code by default.

    I stress that there is nothing wrong with this approach, but I am more partial towards setting guidelines and getting people to think about how they ought to live in a broader sense. Of course, this doesn’t work at a big corporation, so just force people to follow the rules.

  • asg

    No discussion of business ethics can be meaningful without acknowledging the contradictions produced by modern white collar criminal law. Check out this article:

    Take the quiz at the beginning, then read the article, and note how the ethical choice can land you in a heap of trouble with the law.