All business activity is human activity. This simple yet profound reference, found throughout the book “Business Ethics” (De George, 2010), became a key touchpoint for my public-relations students at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications over the past several years, and is a mainstay in my work with CEOs and legal counsel throughout the U.S. as they manage sensitive and crisis situations that include difficult decisions.
I refer to it often and find that it helps leaders of even the most complicated organizations stay on track and true to their mission. It also helps to remind us that a fundamental principle in business ethics is fairness. It always has been, and without it, business would not be able to sustain itself.
Just consider some the most significant ethical breaches in business over the past decade: Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, and Cambridge Analytica. At the end of the day, in each instance, the company’s actions came down to human activity and fairness.
Whether we like it or not, organizations look to their leaders as role models for ethical behavior. Employees, customers, suppliers, and even competitors watch their actions closely. And it is quite often the little decisions that have the biggest impact on a company’s brand or an organization’s reputation.
Legal matters are one thing. The law is the law, and we all need to be careful not to rationalize our way around it to fit our unique circumstances. However, there are also lots of scenarios business and organization leaders face outside of legal jurisdiction every day; where the considerations, consequences and obligations associated with a decision could use a bit of structure to help us through the process.
I have learned the hard way that it is not enough to simply rely on my gut instinct. Our “frame,” which consists of our social, economic, educational, and religious (or not) background, is all very important. However, we can also benefit from a decision-making process for some of the sensitive matters we face to help us make what Jeffrey Seglin at the Harvard Kennedy School calls “the best right decision.”
For me, it all starts with hitting the pause button.
In today’s instantaneous-response world powered by a hand-held device, it is too easy to fire off a knee-jerk response to a difficult or sensitive question without much thought. However, to make the best right decision, we need just a bit of time to think it through. And, we need some tools that can help us check our instincts. Even as we now try to figure out how to address the growing number of ethical concerns being raised by artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, humans still have a key role to play, even in setting up the technology guardrails for this data-driven technology.
Most sensitive and important decisions come down to those made based on cost-vs.-benefit, or consequences (referred to as teleological); and those based on our sense of obligation and duty, regardless of what consequences may follow (deontological). Teleological decisions can be further broken down to those based on the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism), and those based on the best outcome for ourselves or our organization alone (utility).
I know, I know. Many of you are thinking I have gone all John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant on you. But as esoteric as these methods sound (and the important steps that go along with each), we do make better decisions when taking a few minutes to sift through the facts, consider any dominant considerations, and review our decision in a larger context. These methods take practice, but they work. And while it might seem like my decision could ultimately be the same after going through these steps, it gives me some confidence to know I’ve stopped to consider my place in the world, who else may be impacted, what could occur as a result, and any responsibilities I may have to others.
To put it in practical terms, consider this simple example: A private, closely held business owner has decided she is going to sell her business to an overseas investor later this year. One of the key considerations is the timing of an announcement (to all audiences), since she still has some huge orders to fill under current contractual obligations to her customers. Should she tell her employees now (recognizing that she cannot guarantee their employment after the sale) or hold off a few weeks if the buyer will agree until the large orders are filled? What considerations, consequences ,and obligations are at play here? Will her decision be based on a cost vs. benefit analysis, or sense of duty to her employees, current customers, community, and others?
These are the questions that benefit from the use of a systematic decision-making process.
Company codes of conduct and values statements are important. But they really are not worth the paper they are written on unless leadership sets the tone and provides the example. Remember, everyone is watching you, so you would be well-advised to have some of these tools in your box when you get the questions. Traditionalists and baby boomers responded well to “because I said so” statements from their boss. But today’s younger generations rightfully ask “why?” regarding the decisions an organizational leader makes. So, it’s better to be equipped with the tools to address the questions that will ultimately arise.
We are all human, and we will all make mistakes. I have made some colossal ones. However, wouldn’t we make better decisions as organization leaders if we realized that our individual actions have the potential to have a huge impact on the organizations we serve; and that the considerations, consequences and obligations we think about deserve a pause in order to ensure we come up with the best right decision?
I think so… because all business activity is human activity.
Michael Meath is founder and owner of Fallingbrook Associates, LLC, a crisis communications, ethics, and reputation-management consulting firm. He recently retired from teaching public-relations management, business ethics, communications law, and crisis communications at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and McMaster University.