5 Steps for Making Strong Ethical Decisions

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As a leader, it is inevitable that you will have to make an ethical decision. Analyzing any ethical decision can be difficult and can often produce conflicting positive and negative outcomes as a result of a chosen course of conduct. It is imperative that you have reconciled your own system to use to make ethical decisions where there are conflicting moral issues.

Creating a System for Ethical Decision Making

Incorporating insight from Ruggiero (2008) and from professional experience, here is a guide toward creating a framework for ethical decision making system:  

1. Recognize there is an ethical issue

There can be times when one can think that all is okay. An example of this can be someone who thinks it is okay to take office supplies from work for their kids’ school supplies. I have come across people who think it is okay to take it because the company will never miss it and they do not feel they are being paid enough anyway, so it balances out by being paid in-kind.

2. Sort Out the Facts

Once it is determined that there is an ethical issue, then the next step would be to sort out the facts and to make sure that the person has all of the facts necessary to make an informed decision.

Once the facts are gathered, the ethical issue should be defined in terms of how does it affect the obligations to other parties involved, what type of decision has to be made, is it a choice of the lesser of two evils, or is it a fight between good and bad, etc. What are the desired outcomes? What are the alternatives?

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Using the example of taking office supplies, discovering the facts such as the person could not afford to purchase supplies. Maybe the employee did not have time to get the supplies. You may also have to recognize whether the offense is a legal issue.

3. Review All Possible Outcomes

When considering the possible outcomes of your decision, think about…

“Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? (The Utilitarian Approach);

Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (The Rights Approach);

Which option treats people equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach);

Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members? (The Common Good Approach), and

Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (The Virtue Approach)”

Continuing with the example regarding the office supplies situation, possible outcomes could be: The employee can be fired; the employee can be jailed; have the employee pay restitution for the theft; suspend the employee. Is there extenuating circumstances surrounding this theft?

4. Make a Decision

Once all available facts are known, and all possible outcomes are considered, then a decision must be made. How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?

For the office supplies situation, it has been decided that the employee will be terminated; but no charges will be filed against the employee.

5. Reflection and Follow-up

It is important to review to look for any lessons to be learned and how can such lessons be applied in the future?

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Returning to the office supplies issue. The company then decides to put some processes in place to avoid this situation in the future; having employees complete a requisition form for supplies; assign a trustworthy central person issue supplies; keep the supplies under lock and key and sending a memo to all employees advising of the severe consequences if caught taking supplies.

Pros and Cons in This System

The strength of this approach is the thoroughness in making a decision that affects others. The weakness of the approach is the risk of continual analyzing and testing of the ethical decision: A decision may delayed because there will always be the possibility that there is a better alternative. It is important to thoroughly review the facts and then make a decision and move on.

In recent history, blatant ethical offenses have been ignored by leadership and have been reasoned that these actions were for the “greater good.” Apparently, the greater good were those leaders.

It takes a courageous leader to choose ethics over politics. Be that leader.


What process does your company have in place to make ethical decisions? Does the organization’s system reflect your personal beliefs? When should you push your beliefs aside to carry out your company’s policies?


Ruggiero, V. (2008). Thinking critically about ethical issues, (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

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