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Managers: Train your brain for ethical decisions

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

No easy path

Learn to plan out your response to ethical quandaries – before they ever happen. (Thinkstock)

People in Austin, Texas, used to know the name of chef Jesse Griffiths for his supper club, Dai Due, or because of his popular stand at the city’s farmer’s market. But these days, Griffiths gets most of his notoriety thanks to his hunting class.

That’s right. Griffiths, who has worked in France and at several renowned restaurants, also offers hunting and butchering classes. He takes clients — about 25 per year — out to deer blinds in the Texas countryside. He teaches them how to shoot and then shows them how to butcher the animal.

But Griffiths doesn’t teach the hunt-and-butcher course for outdoors types. Instead, he targets anybody who regularly eats a hamburger. “People who eat meat should see what happens to animals before it ends up on their table,” Griffiths said. “Every time they consume an animal, they should make sure they’re comfortable with it.”

This begs a question for the rest of us: If diners are being asked to think more about the source of their food, why stop at the dinner table?

Introspection at work, too

Especially when it comes to business, introspection is a must. If you haven’t already faced ethical decisions about whether to lie or cheat for your company, it’s time to consider what you would do if you were faced with such dilemmas. Figuring out those answers now — and how you’d implement your plan — will help you deal with that dilemma later. This is especially important for managers, who need to set the tone for subordinates. For one, research suggests employees will work harder and stay committed to companies with high ethical standards.

For those who feel too jaded by scandals like those at Enron or the implosion of Lehman Brothers to think any corporation has ethics, think again. In fact, the US has an advantage over the rest of the world. Federal and state regulations have codified many ethical mores into law, said W Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Business Ethics in Waltham, Massachusetts.

For instance, in Japan gifts are expected at many business meetings, something that would be seen as a bribe in the US and forbidden under most ethics policies. And then there are the envelopes of cash expected by government officials in developing countries, something few US companies consider part of business.

Shifty practices by the US sub-prime mortgage lending industry may have made it seem like business ethics have gotten worse. And the idea of an investment bank betting against its customers at the same time it invested for them the opposite way certainly smacks of bad morals. But Hoffman said we’re actually in an era where principles in business, or at least the discussion of it, is more prevalent than ever.

“When you have pressure to make money, you’re going to have people who are quite ethical at home who do things at work they know they shouldn’t do,” Hoffman said.

For those who find themselves working for places with murky values, the key is to save up some “walk-away money,” said Paul Adler, the Harold Quinton Chair in Business Policy and professor of management and organisation at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. “You have to ask yourself, is this the kind of organisation you really want to work for?”

For those who aren’t sure of the answer, Adler suggests finding someone who can help you parse ethical dilemmas. If you then decide the company is asking you to do something objectionable, Adler said bring it to your boss, who likely also had the same moral quandary and will hopefully respect you more for bringing it up.

At all costs, avoid justifying a bad decision. Too often we make excuses, such as ‘everyone else at the company is doing it’, or ‘it’s just the industry’. “Rationalisation,” Adler said, “is the single most powerful factor driving otherwise upstanding citizens into malfeasance.”

Building ‘muscle memory’

Even if you don’t currently face ethical quandaries at work, Adler encourages everybody to think out what happens when you do. He suggests studying Giving Voice To Values, a curriculum developed by Mary Gentile, a senior research scholar at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Gentile’s approach to corporate ethics is a novel one. Forget considering specific examples, like your boss has asked you to lie about impending layoffs. Instead, managers and employees should ask themselves: “Once I know what I think is right, how do I get it done?” In other words, don’t just plan the answer to ethical issues, plot the solution.

“Many situations are not about a single defining moment or conversation,” Gentile, who was travelling in Europe, wrote in an email.

This kind of role playing creates “moral muscle memory” that makes us better at reaching ethical decisions, Gentile suggests. It also allows us to develop pre-scripted answers so that we’re confident in reaching an ethical decision.

Then, acting on the decision comes down to something most of us might not expect, said Adler. Most of us figure ethical decisions are about our principles. More than not, it’s about guts.

“It’s a matter of courage to do what you know is right,” Adler said.

There’s also a good deal of courage needed in Griffiths’s hunting classes. It’s not uncommon for students to change their minds about shooting a deer traipsing through the woods or to get shaken up when faced with the still-warm carcass.

But the idea of ethical eating has come a long way, Griffiths said. Nowadays, most of his students know about the benefits of organics, local ingredients, and even hunting.

“When we started in 2006, we really had to explain ourselves. We would put on a dinner and say that it’s going to be all local ingredients and people would ask why,” Griffiths said. “Now eating green, everybody knows that.”

In business, that kind of moral analysis is maybe still a bit novel.

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At all costs, avoid justifying a bad decision.