Social norms have almost always required humans to rely on their personal morals to make decisions that benefit not only themselves but also the community at large. However, the process of creating a set of ethics and living by those ethical standards is much more complex. Individuals, for various reasons, have a different perception of ethical behavior than others, which can make it difficult to define ethics and understand the decisions that people make. In general, morals are internal or personal beliefs related to right or wrong – an individual’s personal “compass.” Ethical standards are external beliefs and behavioral codes established by groups, communities, religious groups, cultures, and workplaces.
WHAT IS ETHICAL BEHAVIOR?
According to the Indeed Career Guide, ethical behavior occurs when a person acts in a way that reflects their moral standards, often upholding their personal values and beliefs. Ethical behavior is often rooted in a sense of fairness, with individuals choosing to act in a way that is not only right for themselves but also equitable for the rest of the people in their community or organization. Personal ethical behavior involves acting in a way that reflects internal values and morals. Professional, ethical behavior involves external codes (for example, medical and legal codes, school policies or workplace codes).
What Does It Mean to Be Ethical?
Being ethical means relying on your morality and personal standards for conduct in your daily life. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, being ethical might also involve expressing your moral approval of someone else’s decision-making. Most people would agree that behaving ethically is a positive attribute and that the best leaders are ethical people who are guided by their personal set of principles.
The concepts of ethical behavior and ethical decision-making can be broken down into four distinct ethical theories:
- Deontology —This is an ethical theory that states that people choose between right and wrong based on a strict set of clear rules. According to Ethics Unwrapped, people who act according to this theory are often guided by a sense of duty, and they believe that the rules that guide ethical behavior are universal. Examples of deontological rules are do not cheat, do not kill and do not steal.
- Utilitarianism —Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that focuses more on the consequences of a particular action rather than preventing the action itself. There is more gray area in utilitarianism, because one decision may be considered moral or right in one circumstance, yet wrong in another. The key to determining morality within utilitarianism is to focus on the outcome.
- Virtue Ethics—This is one of the most ancient ethical theories, and it is primarily based on building character by instilling virtues in an individual. Honesty, fairness, bravery and generosity define this ethical theory.
- Consequentialism —This ethical theory is another that focuses more on the consequence of the decision rather than the decision itself. For example, most people would agree that it’s wrong to enter someone’s home without their permission. However, in the event of a fire, the right thing to do might be to break into the home and help those stuck in the burning building.
Ethical dilemmas are pretty common, not only in the professional setting but also in people’s personal lives. This is a situation in which a person might feel conflicted about what the right thing to do is. You may feel that you are compelled to make one choice based on how that outcome will benefit you, but you may worry about whether that outcome will negatively impact another person. When it comes to ethical dilemmas, people often rely on their moral principles from their upbringing to make a decision that will sit well with their own conscience (that does have an influence as adults on how they view and interact with ethical standards in society and the workplace).
INFLUENCE OF CULTURE AND SOCIETY
Something that most psychologists agree on is that a person’s upbringing has a significant impact on their values and personal morality. Your sense of right and wrong is usually established early in childhood, as your parents and caregivers help you learn to navigate the world around you. In addition, the cultural norms within your society will impact the way that you are raised. A person who grows up on a farm, for instance, might have a different values system related to animals, animal care and animal life than a person who was raised in the city primarily around pets.
Cultural Norms Impact
Cultural norms have a significant impact on ethical decision-making, particularly in the professional setting. Cultural norms give individuals within a group a sense of safety and security, as they generally all agree on what is the right way to behave. However, cultural norms can vary significantly from one group to another, so there can be discord and confusion related to what is considered ethical or unethical behavior.
ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING PROCESS
These are the steps that most individuals take during the ethical decision-making process:
- Recognize the Ethical Dilemma —The first step in making a decision based on values and morals is to recognize that ethics should be involved in the situation. An ethical dilemma can weigh heavily on a person’s conscience, as there are often many factors to consider.
- Gather Relevant Information —Next, it’s important to gather facts and data related to the circumstance. Making a fact-based decision is crucial in an ethical dilemma. In addition, policies of agencies and professional ethical codes and laws and regulations should be considered as well.
- Identify Stakeholders —The people or organizations who are involved in the dilemma may play a role in the final decision. The perspectives of all stakeholders, as well as how the outcome will affect each person involved, should be considered.
- Consider Ethical Principles and Theories —Sometimes, it’s important to consider the different ethical theories and decide which one is best for that circumstance. For instance, relying on a simple rule such as “do not lie” may not be applicable in all situations. You may want to rely more on the consequence of the lie to determine if it is right to move forward.
- Evaluate Alternatives —Before making a final decision, it’s important to consider any possible alternatives. Alternative choices may result in different outcomes, which may sway the decision that you make.
- Make a Decision —Finally, after you have given the dilemma thoughtful consideration and relied on ethical standards to come to a conclusion, it’s time to make a decision and move forward. If you have been fair and transparent during the decision-making process, you should feel confident about the choice you make.
- Implement the Decision —Implement the decision as swiftly as possible to solve the dilemma. Be prepared to defend your choice and explain why you came to that conclusion. Others around you will respect that you relied on ethical standards to make the best possible decision, and you will start to earn a reputation of integrity in your organization.
- Monitor and Reflect —Afterward, take time to reflect on the decision and the outcome. Was it the right choice in the end? Could you have come to the conclusion differently? Would you do the same thing next time? These reflections will further shape your moral compass and provide you with fine-tuned guidance in the future.
CONSEQUENCES OF ETHICAL BEHAVIOR
Most people feel that those with high moral standards should be rewarded for their good behavior and morality. In many cases, in the corporate setting, those who act ethically and are aligned with the company culture and ethical standards are rewarded with promotions, raises and opportunities that may not be available to those who make different decisions.
The consequences of unethical behavior can be severe, particularly for businesses. According to Business News Daily, corporations that engage in unethical behavior can be left dealing with hefty fines, lawsuits, legal challenges and more. Individuals who engage in unethical behavior may be charged with a crime or may find themselves struggling to succeed in the professional sphere.
ETHICAL BEHAVIOR IN PROFESSIONAL LIFE
Ethical behavior is critical in the professional realm, particularly in several career fields. For instance, in the healthcare sector, medical professionals must rely on ethical standards to make decisions about a patient’s care plan. In the technology industry, ethical standards must be used to determine if new advances in technology are beneficial or detrimental. In finance, industry executives must rely on their ethics to make decisions that are both personally and fiscally responsible.
Organizations that incorporate values and morals into their practices often develop a more positive workplace culture, one in which co-workers collaborate to achieve common goals. Organizational leaders should have a solid understanding of what ethical behavior is and what drives humans to make ethical decisions, as this will help them create cultural norms and guidelines in their own company.
UNCOVER THE COMPLEXITY OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR THROUGH YOUR DEGREE PROGRAM
If human thought processes and behavior fascinate you, you could transform your interest and curiosity into a career. At Johnson & Wales University, we offer an online Bachelor of Science in Psychology that provides students with an extensive foundation in the psychological theories that explain human behavior and ethical decision-making. In addition, it’s a skills-based degree program that prepares students for a career in the field of psychology. For more information about completing your degree online, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].