Ethics Choices

“Every employee must take responsibility for acting with integrity, even when this means making difficult choices.” A phrase like this appears in many codes of ethics. It is a statement that reminds employees how they ought to act, and is easy to understand in concept, but is not necessarily easy to put into practice. Why is that? How can your ethics program help employees make difficult choices when they need to?

One reason that it is difficult to make the right choice when faced with an ethical dilemma is that not all choices are either “right” or “wrong”.  Rushworth Kidder, in his book How Good People Make Tough Choices, asserts that right-versus-wrong situations represent “moral temptations” rather than “ethical dilemmas”.  Most people are clear about what constitutes “wrong” behavior, at least within their culture and organization.  They may rationalize doing the wrong thing, using such excuses as “everyone is doing it” or “they owe me”, but they know it is wrong.

People encounter particularly tough choices, Kidder says, in right-versus-right situations; these represent true ethical dilemmas because each side firmly rooted in people’s basic core values. These dilemmas fall into four general categories: honesty versus loyalty, short-term versus long-term, justice versus mercy, and individual versus community.

Organizations can reduce incidents of employees doing wrong with a comprehensive ethics program. Such a program will remind employees what’s expected via the code of ethics and other communication and training mechanisms, provide opportunities for employees to report wrongdoing with, for example, anonymous ethics hotlines, and deliver consequences to those who do the wrong thing.

Organizations can also strive to remove conditions that may lead to wrongdoing. Ethical Advocate, in its training sessions on this topic, uses fire as an analogy. There are three conditions for fire to exist, oxygen, heat, and fuel. If any one of these conditions is removed, there will be no fire. There are also three conditions for wrongdoing to exist, perceived pressure, perceived opportunity, and rationalization. Removing any one of these conditions may not eliminate wrongdoing but will certainly reduce its occurrence.

Organizations can also help employees recognize and grapple with the potential ethical dilemmas of right-versus-right situations. A well-designed ethics training program with good case studies can help employees recognize ethical dilemmas that may occur and enable them to practice exercising judgment and reasoning in addressing these dilemmas. Effective training and other components of an effective ethics program will help employees make the difficult decisions and the right choices.

Ethical Advocate’s highly customizable ethics and compliance solutions and its training offerings will help your organization effectively manage risk and create a culture of ethics and accountability.  Contact us for more information.


Kidder, Rushworth M. How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemma of Ethical Living, rev. ed. Harper: New York, 2009.