Ethics as a Conversation

The best way to approach an apparent ethics violation is as a misunderstanding that can be resolved informally among the people involved. This means that if I feel I have been wronged by someone, I should assume that that person was acting in good faith, but had perhaps been misinformed in some way. Likewise, if someone accuses me of wrongdoing, I should assume that this person has come upon information that would indeed suggest so, but that (since I’ve done nothing wrong, of course) there’s been some mistake. What we should not do is to take immediate offense, either because we’ve been wronged, or because we’ve been accused of wrongdoing. Very often, a solution is possible if we presume that all the people involved are imperfect people who trying to be as good as they can.

This idea is codified in the Academy of Management’s Code of Ethics as follows:

When AOM members have substantial reason to believe that there has been an ethical violation by another AOM member, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual. (5.4)

In interpreting this standard it’s important to apply a little common sense. This principle does not say that you must always first go to the person you think has done something unethical. There are many cases in which it would be risky to confront the alleged wrongdoer directly. In those cases, it makes little difference whether anything unethical has actually been done. Some people don’t take the accusation lightly, even if they’ve done nothing, or especially if they’ve done nothing wrong. (I’m not sure if that “even … or” should be vice versa. Are people especially offended by the accusation if it’s accurate?) What you will want to do is make sure that your interactions with the other person are documented and/or witnessed by a third party. And this is where a more official process, or the involvement of the ombudsperson, might be helpful. (More on formal processes in another post.)

What the standard does say is that is that you should be able to substantiate your sense that there has been an ethical violation. You have to have a good, detailed sense of what happened and why its a problem. This will make the conversation much more constructive. You should also have a resolution of some kind in mind. If there is something wrong, what would set things right? Don’t accuse someone else, whether in public or in private, of an ethical violation without good reason to do so, and don’t do it just to establish the fact that this person is unethical. Assume that they are ethical and want to do the right thing. Be in a position to explain the wrong and suggest the right.

And remember, always, that conversation takes time. Reaching an understanding is a long, but often rewarding, process.

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