Ethical leadership has become a topic of increasing prominence among organizational leaders, professionals and employees across varied industries and organizations. In recent years, we have witnessed wide-spread leadership and ethical failures in some of our most long-standing and financially profitable people and organizations. There are too many instances to mention here, but just to name a few there was the 

  • Enron accounting fraud case
  • Bernard Madoff investment scandal
  • Dr. Conrad Murray trial (the doctor who served jail for contributing to the death of Michael Jackson) and
  • 2008 financial and housing disaster

What do you think about when you are reminded of these monumental ethical failures, and how important is it for you to be an ethical leader?

The question of leadership ethics usually comes up in reaction to poorly made decisions, business practices and failed disparate policies. However, it should be a proactive measure that reflects the organizational culture and advances a system of honor and integrity to broadly support and reflect institutional values. This lack of leadership leads to a great number of unnecessary ethical dilemmas. 

An ethical dilemma occurs when one is faced with choosing between two or more unsatisfactory alternatives. It is a multifaceted circumstance that involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives – a moral paradox. 

Ethical gaps result when we make decisions or behave contrary to what we know or “feel” is right, specifically when situations don’t present clear-cut answers. There are greatEthical Leadership quandaries that cause well-reasoned and informed people to disagree or to fail to pay attention to things like: 

  • Self-regulated accountability
  • Disparate treatment of employees
  • Customary practices applied to the detriment of official policy
  • Policies applied inconsistently and so as to create personal benefit
  • Hiring, performance, and termination practices based on something other than merit 

Ethical leaders and managers prevent and close ethical dilemma gaps between organizational, professional and personal ethics by (1) building distinguishable standards and (2) pondering and advancing decisions through the seven-question ethical test. 

Build Distinguishable Ethical Standards. 

The standards will be only as good and useful as the safeguards put in place to support and measure them. Safeguards are excellent for initiating dialogue among other decision makers and can serve as tools by which to measure and evaluate behaviors and decisions throughout the institution as well as develop other leaders and staff. Standards and safeguards should be transparent and established with buy-in from other leaders and team members within the organization. 

Advance an ethical culture by defining and implementing the following standards: 

  • Establish a code of ethics that all employees are expected to follow
  • Ethically sound judgment – solicit various perspectives
  • Clarify certification and licensure expectations
  • Establish professional boundaries
  • Align practice with policy and vice versa
  • Develop and follow “one” rule book
  • Acknowledge and reward employees for doing the right things
  • Use the following ethical test questions before acting/making decisions 

What standards have you set for leadership and to distinguish ethical behavior? 

Ethical leadership standards are applicable whether working in a large or small organization and/or if working in private practice in one of the professional fields such as a law, medicine, or consulting. While the standards do serve to support and advance an ethical culture, they have to be critiqued and measured periodically to determine any need for modifications, additions, or removals. 

The Ethical Test for Decision Making – Questions to Prevent and/or Close the Ethical Dilemma Gap. 

The full scope of organizational effectiveness (strategy, culture, service, systems, people, profit) is directly impacted by employee and leader behavior and decision making. As leaders it is incumbent upon us to make ourselves aware of the interrelationships between organizational standards, values, and beliefs and our personal ones. 

The following test provides seven questions which can be applied when striving to properly bridge the dilemma gap and act ethically. 

  1. Will this action/decision violate any criminal or civil laws or does it violate workplace policy?
  2. Will this action/decision cause me to lie or misrepresent the facts? Will I need to withhold information?
  3. Will this action/decision cause me to intentionally or unintentionally harm anyone?
  4. Will I feel good about this action/decision? Would I be proud if my family knew of my actions?
  5. What regrets might this action/decision cause?
  6. If this action/decision was published in the media, would I change anything?
  7. Will this action or decision lead to disparate treatment for employees or customers? How? 

Do you believe ethical leadership should be rewarded or acknowledged? How? 

You tell us – 

  • What additional ethical standards would you add to distinguish behavior?
  • What additional questions would you add to the ethical test for decision making?
  • What is a first step to take in establishing ethical standards in your organization?
  • Other thoughts??

by Terina Allen
President & CEO, ARVis Institute
Chair, ARVoices Strategic Leadership Network