Ethics in (a) Crisis: Why Ethical Decision-Making Matters More Than Ever
April 30, 2020
Moments of severe crisis test us. Just as a crisis the scale of the current COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in organizational systems like supply chains, healthcare structures and national readiness, it will also expose weaknesses in character – both individual and collective.
In times of crisis, our “ethical character” falls under a spotlight whether we realize it or not – as does our ability to bring a framework of ethical decision-making to every consideration and action. Even small choices we make now will be amplified in unexpected ways (good or bad) over time. Being aware and intentional matters more than ever in difficult days like these.
The nuanced nature of ethical decision-making – along with the “nuts and bolts” of living one’s ethics – are issues that have long dominated my interest as a professional communicator and organizational leader.
Many of the issues we covered could not be more relevant to success in navigating this crisis, both now and over the long-term. Here are some of my top takeaways from our conversation.
Ethical challenges typically start small. I often call ethical lapses “death by 1,000 paper cuts.” Asked to share an ethical challenge I have managed in my career, I told the story of a prominent start-up feeling pressure to inflate its growth numbers over a period of two-plus years. What started as small instances of “rounding up” grew into leaps that, to me, crossed too far over the line. Managing this took care and a variety of approaches – from simply pointing out the choice being made, to issuing a resolute “no” when I felt an action would endanger the start-up’s reputation as well as our own, as the agency hired to represent them.
Ethical decision-making takes awareness and intentionality. If someone gives you a shovel and says start digging, each scoop of dirt is insignificant in and of itself. But before you know it, you are standing at the bottom a deep hole. This metaphor is fitting when it comes to operating without an ethical “lens” for decision-making. Without awareness of the possible implications of each choice you are making, you, too, could end up down in that hole.
Crises allow us to rise to the (ethical) occasion. As I stated earlier, nothing exposes the true character of a person or an organization like a crisis. Acting ethically in times of intense strife does not mean you will avoid decisions that are difficult or ones that can come with great personal cost. But it does mean you will act in the best interest of your organization, your people, your community and your society as a whole, to the best of your ability. And it also means you will act with as much candor, transparency and empathy as possible.
The ethical character of those around you matters – a lot. I feel blessed in my career to have worked for and with leaders who have demonstrated strong ethical character, even in moments of severe stress and uncertainty. From my earliest days at Burson-Marsteller (being in awe at riding the elevator with one of our industry’s greatest role models, Harold Burson), to the founders of CooperKatz, and now to my partners at G&S Business Communications, I have shared both good and hard times with individuals who lead with character and conviction. There will be disagreements and different ways of perceiving the “right” path forward. But a north star is always there. And, frankly, this makes tough times a heck of a lot less overwhelming.
Be in constant dialogue about ethics. We need to maintain a consistent and open dialogue on these issues with professionals at all levels in our organizations. Even the youngest of our colleagues needs to understand the incremental nature of ethical lapses and their potential consequences over time. And they need to feel comfortable speaking up with they are uncomfortable – even if they’re not sure whether there really is a problem. Empowering our teams to have open conversations is the best way to polish our ethical lens. We can diversify our thinking, broaden our perspectives and spot issues before they grow into full-on problems.
Here at G&S Business Communications, “Build Trust” is one of the seven values that guide our work and our culture. These two simple words are a promise that is easily made – yet requires a constellation of everyday actions to fulfill.
We are in a moment in our society where so much is unprecedented and uncertain, a moment when both information and disinformation flows freely and unchecked. This is one of the greatest challenges we face as communicators – and as people. But if more of us actively reflect on what it means to think and act ethically, we will get much further in building the kind of trust we will need for the long period of COVID-19 recovery to come.