Most of us believe or want to believe that we are ethical and in most cases the belief is valid. Very few of us wake up in the morning with the pronounced intention of cheating, lying and stealing.
Yet “good” people make serious ethical mistakes all the time.
The constraints of time are major contributors to ethical lapses. As communicators, we are under pressure to perform, and we have tight deadlines.
To stop and think (which is what we should often do) seems to be counterintuitive to our competitive corporate lifestyle. We are all engaged in making hundreds of major and minor decisions every day in both our professional and private lives. Some of the decisions that we make may have an ethical dimension that we might not recognize.
Below are six questions PR execs might want to ask themselves before taking action. The answers to these questions could help us navigate between obstacles and clear pathways in our daily ethical decision-making process.
1. How would we feel if what we are about to do is published on tomorrow’s front page of the local newspaper or on the 6 o’clock news?
The fear of shame can be a good indicator that something is wrong. If we cringe at the idea that what we are about to do is going to be made public, we probably should reconsider our planned course of action. In general, fear of shame provokes restraint and could be an indication that we are about to cross some societal boundaries that we better not cross.
2. What would your mother say or think?
Mothers represent conscience, and conscience can be an excellent guide to good moral conduct.
Most mothers have our best interests in mind, yet they will not allow us to take them for a ride. If we think a mother would disapprove, we are probably right. Listening to our mothers in most cases will keep us safe from wrongdoing.
3. Are we thinking of excuses that we will give in order to justify the action we are about to take?
We have an amazing capacity to rationalize our mistakes and to give excuses. However those excuses rarely justify our actions either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others. If we are thinking of excuses even before undertaking the action, we should think again.
4. Would it be okay if everybody did what we are about to do?
Applying Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” we should imagine what it would be like if everybody did what we are about to do. If we conclude that societal life would be impossible under those conditions, we probably should refrain.
5. How would I feel if what I am about to do was done to me?
Hillel’s famous quote revised as the Golden Rule states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and it’s an excellent maxim that can help us determine whether a planned action is ethical or not. We may have some doubts as to whether an action is ethical or not, but we usually don’t hesitate to determine whether such action done to us would be harmful or not.
6. Will our action compromise our integrity?
If what we are about to do is a betrayal of our own values, such as honesty and fairness, then it would be advisable to abstain. A risk-benefit analysis may help. We should determine whether the risk of losing the trust that others have in us is worth whatever immediate benefit we anticipate from the proposed action.
Ethics deals with abstract concepts such as ideals, values and principles. However, it is by our actions that we will be judged by both our contemporaries and by history. Hence, the particular attention we should give in deciding what to do and also what not to do. That decision is seldom easy to make, particularly when facing a conflict between two (or more) legitimate values.
Furthermore, PR execs can rarely be absolutely sure that their course of action is the correct one.
However, as comunicators we have the comfort of knowing that based on the information we had and the time we took to come to the decision, we did the best we could. One should not expect more of oneself or of others.
On the cover of our company’s ethics guideline is the quote from Kabir that says: “Listen to the secret sound, the real sound which is inside you.”
We all have a moral compass. The problem is that we often do not stop long enough to be able to hear that “little voice” within all us. PRN
Emmanuel Tchividjian is senior VP and ethics officer at Ruder Finn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.