Core values exist in most organisations, whether they’ve been consciously created or left to chance, and whether or not they are formally articulated. An organisation’s values provide a framework for the company’s culture and decision-making.
In the rapidly changing world of work, there is not always a ‘golden rule’ or ‘best practice’ to help practitioners navigate workplace dilemmas. The ability to exercise situational judgement is critical to making the best possible decisions, by drawing on both knowledge and sensitivity to the ethical choices.
Ethical dilemmas can arise in many situations and at all levels within organisations, from those related to strategy and policy in the boardroom to those faced by managers or individuals in their daily work. While the boundaries of right and wrong as defined in law are clear, behaving ethically is discretionary. Dilemmas arise when the best choice is not clear; for example, when someone is faced with a choice between the least wrong options, or when the needs of different stakeholders are in conflict.
To operate ethically, an organisation needs an ethics programme to support and bring its values to life. This may be a formal or informal depending on the size of the organisation, but it should include a code of ethics. If values are a compass to guide behaviour at work, then a code of ethics is the map that helps people navigate workplace ethical dilemmas. Done well, a code articulates expected behaviours and isn’t seen just as a compliance-driven initiative. To support embedding a code, organisations should facilitate continued activities and communications with staff, using valuable insights from staff, customers and stakeholders.
Some organisations provide individuals with ‘ethical tests’ to help them make decisions and navigate ethical values and principles. These might involve a series of questions, such as:
- Is it consistent with the organisation’s code of ethics?
- How would I feel about it being on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers?
Organisations should articulate what ethical principles mean in day-to-day practice and support employees in embracing them, as well as working with individuals to recognise when an ethical dilemma arises and how to deal with it. Our Ethics at work employer’s guide includes a ‘Transparent decision making’ flowchart that can be shared with the workforce.