Three Principles for Deciding Ethical Dilemmas
Solutions to ethical issues are not always addressed by a written company policy, and you must think through the process of solving ethical dilemmas. I follow three main guiding principles for deciding ethical dilemmas. Applying these principles aids me in deciding not only ethical dilemmas in my business life, but also the dilemmas I face in my everyday personal life. These guiding principles are:
1. Is it legal? Will this action be against either civil or criminal laws? By taking this action, will you jeopardize yourself or your company in the eyes of the law?
2. Will I feel good about my decision? This is where your personal values become vitally important. Think carefully about how you will feel after completing or observing an action. Will it make you proud? Will you feel good if your decisions are published in the newspaper? Will you feel comfortable if your company knows about it? Will you feel good if your family knows about it? Is it morally right?
3. Is it within the principles of my company’s business ethics policy? Will your actions go against the principles established in your company’s business ethics policy? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as well as the long term?
When deciding ethical dilemmas take time to think out the problem, as this is not the moment to make snap-decisions. The Courts may review the choice(s) you make for years to come, which could have a negative impact on your career, and deal a financial blow to your company. If your company’s ethics policy is unclear, regarding a particular scenario, always “take a partner” when making these types of decisions. Seek aid in the decision making process from a supervisor or a company executive, as sharing an ethical dilemma with someone else helps; they may examine your problem from another perspective.
The Need for Ethics Based Policies
Regardless of size or the number of employees, every company needs to adopt a written policy regarding the ethical standards expected of their employees. Some of the excuses or rationalizations I have heard for not establishing an ethics policy include:
- “We’re too small”
- “We’re just one big family”
- “It’s all just common sense”
If you find yourself in Court defending yourself against an illegal action, those excuses will not bolster your defense. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, in connection with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (Sarbanes-Oxley Act 2002), has adopted standards that limit liability if a company has implemented an effective compliance program.See United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, §8B2.1 (a). However, the standard is high. The Commission wrote, "Establishing an effective compliance and ethics program is essential for an organization seeking to mitigate its punishment (including fines and terms of probation) for a criminal offense." A key factor in determining whether an organization qualifies for a sentence reduction under the Guidelines is a finding that the organization had, at the time of the offense, an effectual program to prevent and detect violations of law. Simply establishing a compliance program is not sufficient to gain this reduction.
Establishing a Business Ethics Policy
If your company is large, and includes several large departments, you may want to consider adopting an overall corporate code and then separate ethical conduct codes for individual departments. Consider the following guidelines when establishing an ethical code of conduct:
- What key behaviors are needed for adherence to the ethical values found in your code of ethics? Your policies should contain ethical reviews of laws, regulations, and behaviors needed for your business needs.
- Include wording that requires employees to conform to your ethical policies. Tell employees, who they may contact, or where they can go to find the answer to their questions.
- Make sure your legal counsel and key members of the organization’s structure review the proposed policies before publication.
- Distribute your document and start the training process.
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