Ethical Litmus Tests

Steps to Staying Out of Trouble

Tim Schneider, Coach, Speaker, Author and Trainer from Aegis Learning

By Tim Schneider

There are several ways to tell if you have made good ethical decisions or not. The most simple is a three step test that can be used by individuals for simple decisions or by entire organizations for more far-sweeping decisions.

The first step is the gut check. Sometimes known as the butterfly test or the sleep test, this simply asks whether you can live with the decision comfortably without life interruption. If stomach butterflies, tormented sleep or great anxiety exists, the decision likely has some ethical problems and may not conform with your company’s values. By contrast, if sleep, eating and life are not a problem, your decision was probably ethically correct.

There is one problem with this test because it requires a conscience. With people that have no conscience, personal value set or the ability to shrug away any concern with poor ethical choices, this test will not work effectively. One other challenge related to this ethical test step is that group decisions will often eliminate any guilt associated with the poor ethical choice. The personal reconciliation point is that the other two committee members voted for it so my responsibility is eliminated.

The second ethical litmus test is the authority test. This test asks how you would feel is someone in authority or someone that you hold in high regard would feel about your decision. A boss, your spouse, a trusted friend. How would they react to your choice? What would they say? Would they be supportive or would they question your actions? Would they be proud of you or disappointed in you? Those are the key questions that make this test step work.

Some organizations have actually codified this test step by creating an ethics officer or ethics manager in their company. Usually found in larger companies which also have to deal with a highly regulated environment, these people are the person in authority that adjudges decisions and directions as ethical or not. It is the responsibility of the ethics officer to ask the questions and test decisions against the values of the organization.

The final ethical test is related to media coverage. How would it look if your decision was on the front page of the local newspaper? Could you defend your actions to 60 Minutes without slamming the door on Morley Shafer? Would you have to say “no comment” or could you articulate your position clearly? These questions assume that we would choose more carefully if the media were watching our every move.

There is no perfect way to test for ethical treatment and ethical decision but when the three tests are performed sequentially, it is helpful in staying out of trouble. At the end of the day, ethical decisions are made by ethical people and unethical decisions are made by unethical people.

Tim Schneider

Tim Schneider is the founder, CEO and lead facilitator for Aegis Learning.  

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