Want a More Ethical Team? Build Expertise, Not Just Guidelines

The practical application of ethical guidelines requires skill, not just noble intentions. Here are four ways leaders can develop people’s ethical compass.

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Ethics is often associated with the abstract realm of philosophers. But there’s nothing abstract about the risks for business leaders: Ethical missteps can expose their companies to a host of reputational, regulatory, and legal risks. In response, companies develop ethical guidelines or codes for decision makers and set up boards to govern guideline usage. For example, companies under growing pressure to fight bias are developing protocols to enable customer service representatives to treat all complaining customers fairly. Another example is companies that are revamping guidelines to ensure fairness and the implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments at all stages of the recruitment process (such as screening or selecting), often aided by algorithms.

However, a significant challenge arises when leaders need to apply ethical guidelines — which are, by design, generic and abstract — to concrete, pressing dilemmas. The practical application of ethical guidelines requires skill, not merely noble intentions.

How can decision makers learn to skillfully put a company’s ethical guidelines into action? This article demystifies the art of applying ethical guidelines in real-world scenarios and offers leaders recommendations on how to build people’s ethical expertise in order to successfully bring their organization’s guidelines to life.

Three Practices That Help Leaders Apply Ethics Guidelines

To learn more about effective leaders who take a proactive, systematic approach to ethical risk management, we conducted an in-depth study of health care organizations. We examined how health care leaders used ethical guidelines when making critical, occasionally life-or-death decisions in ambiguous situations and with limited resources. That’s a competency that business leaders across all industries need to master in order to manage ethical risks.

By meticulously analyzing the equitable distribution of resources and establishing advanced ethical guidelines, health care leaders have set a benchmark in ethical decision-making. The health care sector’s experiences offer valuable lessons for people addressing ethical dilemmas in everyday high-stakes decision-making areas, such as hiring or customer service.

While spending several months observing decision makers in action, we gained insights into the art of applying ethical guidelines in the real world. Our research illuminates three practices — sensemaking, sense-giving, and sense-breaking — that enable decision makers to apply ethical guidelines skillfully across multiple complex scenarios.

1. Sensemaking

Sensemaking involves using the language of the ethical guidelines to create a narrative of what’s going on in a specific decision-making situation.


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