Ethics are a set of standards which define correct or desired behavior.

That’s an easy definition to state but in practice a hard concept to embrace.  The word is worn like the proverbial cheap suit and bandied about by those whose behavior makes most of us shudder.  Hard to define, ethical behavior is something most us can identify in the absence.  We can identify what it is not but how do we define it?

Ethics is the adherence to a set of standards which are external to the individual.  The standards cannot be self defined.  We have to get them from somewhere other than ourselves.  If we define them it’s not ethics, it’s hedonism.  They may be a written code of conduct, a published text or body of work.  Usually it has a basis in a religious book like the Bible, Koran, Torah or Book of Mormon.

  1. Ethics must be publicly embraced.  The individual, group or organization should specify what their standards are.  It can’t be a mystery or something that is grasped after the fact.
  2. The standard should be codified and accessible to others.  It’s got to be available to others outside the organization.  It can’t be a secret code and it can’t be only subject to the review of the members of the clan, group, organization or company.
  3. The interpretation of ethics in application to a particular situation should not be left to the performing individual.  If the possible offender gets to decide their own issues, it’s not ethics.  It’s whatever the most powerful person decides they want to do.  Evaluation of an action where there is some doubt should come from some governing body, board or group of which the potential offender is not a member.
  4. An ethical standard should have some external and non participatory board or governing body that can rule on questions of ethics.  The group should be established before there is a crisis or question.  They should actively engage in dialogue about the standards and how to apply them to potential conduct.
  5. Ethical conduct is often characterized by some personal cost paid by the individual or organization – a foregone profit, a competitive advantage, a bypassed opportunity.   Often ethics determines the harder right instead of the easier wrong.  In an ideal World, ethical decisions are rewarded and no gain is ever made by making unethical decisions.  But we know that’s not the case.   There is a corollary to the statement, “Courage has no meaning in the absence of danger.”  That is, “Character has no meaning in the absence of personal loss.”

Often the ethical evaluation of a company’s actions is muddied by one’s individually adopted ethical standard.  There are usually two debates stuffed into one.  The first evaluates the company’s stated, published, embraced, enforced and debated ethical standard.  The second judges the company’s action against the aforementioned ethical standard.  Paradoxically one can conclude a company is acting responsibly if it abides by its standard while at the same time disagreeing with the standard.

It is not possible for any organization to embrace an ethical standard with which everyone agrees.   Even if everyone were able to separate hedonism from virtue are simply too many standards.  Disagreement is guaranteed and many organizations find debate quite advantageous.

In debating ethics, individuals usually seek their ethical standard for the organization.  Further people tend to argue for what benefits them personally.  If one thinks it is ethically mandated to share abundance willfully with those with less, they will argue for companies to distribute some of their profits to charity.  If they consider the staggering wealth of a large corporation, they may argue for price controls over their products.

Often individuals graft emotional extras onto external ethical standards because of a sympathetic identification with a perceived victim.  If one owns a business they argue against any outsider telling them how to spend their money.  A long time employee argues corporate responsibility precludes downsizing.

Ethical conversations often become confrontations.  The distinction between I think and I feel blurs.  The manager faced with an ethical dimension still must make a black or white decision for an area that most people will argue has only shades of grey.  Personal agendas abound and tempers flare.  It is a difficult subject but one that will – at some point in time – affect every manager and every organization.