Simple is good. At least that's the message we get from countless KISS (keep it simple, stupid!) recommendations we receive over our life times. Complexity is time consuming, ergo bad. Give me an A+B=C solution and I'll praise your knowledge and efficiency.
I suppose. Except that when it comes to ethics things are far from simple. First, take a look at psychologist James Rest's* "Four Component Model." All four components are necessary if one is to behave morally.
It's possible to get stuck in one of the components. First, we may be blind to the ethical dimensions of a situation (moral sensitivity). We may believe, for instance, that the issue is "just a business one" or is too simple to be considered "moral." Second, we may recognize the morality of the situation but not have the ethical tools to identify the "right answer" (moral judgment). Third, we may know what the "right answer" is but may be unwilling to follow it (moral motivation). Finally, we may be willing to do the right thing but be unable to do so at the last minute (moral behavior).
The next question, therefore, is: What makes us more or less able to go through the four components of morality? Now we turn to the work of Thomas Jones**. Dr. Jones suggested that all four of Rest's components are related to the moral intensity of a situation. In order to estimate the intensity of a situation, we must consider:
According to Jones, we are not likely to pay attention to situations of low moral intensity. For instance, if an employee believes that something has very low consequences and those consequences are very disperse, he/she is unlikely to activate any thoughts of morality. As an example, a person who would ordinarily never steal (not even from a complete stranger) could make a long distance phone call on the company's dime, take home a block of postits from the office supply cabinet or simply fail to focus on work tasks while at work. A normally ethical CEO might ignore the likely but very far way (200 years from now?) environmental impact of current organizational policies.
Why does this matter? Let me offer a few possible implications of ethical complexity:
So, after reading this, tell me: Is simple really good?
I'd love to hear your thoughts: What ethics interventions have you either experienced or implemented in your organization? How have they worked?
* Rest, J. R., & ez, D. N. (1994). Moral development in the professions: Psychology and applied ethics. Psychology Press.
** Jones, T. M. (1991). Ethical decision making by individuals in organizations: An issue-contingent model. Academy of Management Review, 16(2), 366–395.
*** Tenbrunsel, A., & Messick, D. (2004). Ethical fading: The role of self-deception in unethical behavior. Social Justice Research, 17(2), 223–236. doi:10.1023/B:SORE.0000027411.35832.53
Lately I have dedicated considerable time and effort to a study on impartiality and ethical decision making among HR professionals. The data for the study were collected a little while back with one of my then graduate students, Tim Kozitza. I'm currently working on the data analysis with my brother, Professor Carlos de-Mello-e-Souza, from Seattle University. The purpose of the study is to investigate two main questions:
As I write the first question, I can already hear my readers' "duh" response. Of course, you'll say, people are likely to favor their friends. Next question please.
Not so fast. First, the sample will include HR professionals only - we plan to eliminate from the sample participants who do not work in the field of HR. Most HR professionals will agree that "fairness" is an important value in the profession - you are expected to treat employees impartially and in accordance to organizational policy. For instance, the SHRM Code of Ethics states that HR professionals should "develop, administer, and advocate policies and procedures that foster fair, consistent, and equitable treatment for all." Second, the sample includes a large number of individuals with managerial responsibilities - and managers are also expected to be fair and equitable in the allocation of resources and application of organizational policies (we will be reviewing the data to see the impact of managerial role). Third, the dilemma proposed in the survey was a professional one. It did not involve outside friends, family, etc. One might expect "fairness" to be a more important motivation in the world of work than in one's social interactions.
The second question, however, is undoubtedly the most interesting one. Clearly, not everyone is likely to favor the friend. We are exploring variables such as personality traits, gender, and managerial status as we review the data.
Before I see the final results, though, I'm spending some time reflecting on the limits of impartiality. Yes, we advocate for it. We insist that we are capable of it. When push comes to shove, however, how impartial are we really? For instance:
In other words: When we think of "impartiality" we often think of big and clear decisions. The true test of impartiality, however, could lie in the little ones. These little decisions, however, might matter. They might make a difference between someone's success or failure.
What do you think? Can you bring examples of moments in which you favor those you love in the little things? What is the impact of your own partiality? What solutions might you offer?
About the Author
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is an Assistant Professor at Drake University, where she coordinates and teaches at the Master of Science in Leadership Development.