Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Ethical decision-making and hard choices

Encouraging ethical decision-making is one of the main aspirations of any corporate compliance program.  At both the employee and organizational level, it’s important to support and promote the choices that are most consistent with both explicit rules and implicit values.   Individuals and corporations can demonstrate their principles-based identity through the choices they make.

Genuine commitment to making the most ethical decisions through the complex environment of inadequate information, lack of connection to consequences, competing interests, and limitations of belief systems/choice frameworks – just to name a few of the many risks inherent – is a critical component of a culture of compliance.  Individual persistence to honor internal codes of ethics and moral convictions will scale up to create heuristics and habits across the organization that support responsibility and thoughtfulness rather than a culture of fear and habits reflecting limited vision.

Of course, making ethical choices is not so simple as committing to it on the individual level or requiring it and talking about it on the corporate level.  Intending to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason is one thing, and is complex enough on a theoretical or philosophical level as a personal moral choice.  However, all efforts to maintain and support the individual’s intentions can collapse at the collective/group level if the proper maintenance and support doesn’t exist in order to combat the many risks and limitations through which the choice becomes subject to failure.

Translating the aspiration into action, therefore, is often far more complicated than setting an ambition to make a choice under perfect, but perhaps non-existent, conditions.  As the old proverb wisely observes, “There’s many a slip between cup and lip.”  This is especially true between the intention to make an ethical choice – the cup – and the actual decision that can be made in light of all the inputs and outcomes that are at play – the lip.

One of the most common tension points in making ethical decisions is that all of the available choices may be difficult or disappointing ones.  In situations where there is no easy choice to make or where someone’s interests will be negatively impacted no matter which answer to the ethical question at hand is chosen, people sometimes fall back on making dishonest representations or settling on decisions they do not feel they can stand behind.

Standing up for difficult decisions becomes somewhat easier if they are made with integrity and full ethical evaluation.  Working a dilemma analysis process can help to increase comfort and fluency with making moral choices and taking careful consideration of all of the interests and consequences that are at stake.  For more on the steps of dilemma analysis and how to use the process to encourage and make ethical decisions, see this post.

Seriousness of all the interest and risks, effects and impacts, makes the ultimate decision more credible and therefore enables transparency and truth-telling even in the face of dissension or adversity.  Ethical decision-making per definition includes dilemma analysis and weighing of conflicting interests, as described above, and therefore can never be simple or routine while taking all these into consideration.

Famously, in the aftermath of difficult negotiations surrounding the Affordable Care Act in 2010, David Axelrod gave President Barack Obama a plaque that read “Hard things are hard.”  This plaque was then displayed on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office (have a look at it here, from former White House photographer Pete Souza) as Obama’s reminder of the tremendous gravity of his office and that he would have to do great, but very difficult, things as an obligation of his office.  The decisions he would have to make would often not satisfy people’s desire for instant gratification and would frequently infringe upon the rights or desires or beliefs of one person or group of people in order to make progress for those of another.  This simple reminder drives home the truth that making the right decision is not easy, won’t always be popular, and sometimes won’t even stand up to the test of time and remain the “good” thing to have done as knowledge and points of view may change.

For further insights on the principles of ethical decision-making, including risks to it and tips for defense strategies to support it, check out this post.

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