What is Ethical Behaviour?

In our work and personal lives most of us make hundreds of decisions every week, many of which involve some degree of deciding the ‘right’ thing to do. As such, we are often faced with complex situations in which we have to determine the most ethical way to proceed.  But what is ethical behaviour? I think most of us would agree that in the majority of situations there is not simply one ‘right’ and one ‘wrong’ way of doing things. In fact, most situations we face are very complex and involve multiple factors we need to consider in order to decide on a course of action that we see as ‘ethical’. So how do we make these complex decisions?

Often it is simpler than you might think. While there are many models of ethical decision-making which outline a step by step process of how to make an ethical decision, the reality is most of us would struggle in many situations to find the time and resources to engage in such a process. So, how do we make these decisions? The reality is that most of us are experts in what we do. We have worked 40+ hours in our jobs for a number of years, and have generally gained some form of expertise. As a result, when we are faced with these types of complex decisions, where there is often limited information and time with which to choose a course of action, we often use a degree of expert intuition, and may not seem to engage in a rational, step by step process as to deciding the best way to behave. So does this mean we are cutting corners? Not necessarily.

There is a time and a place for both a logical, step-by-step process of making ethical decisions, as well as a more intuitive, “what do I think is right”, process. Sometimes making ethical decisions will involve a step-by-step process, by which you consider each possible course of action and their potential consequences, weighing up the best way forward. These occasions tend to be when both time and resources are sufficient, when you need to justify your decision to someone of higher status such as a professional board, or when you are new to an area of work and have not yet developed expertise. On the other hand, when you are an expert, you do not have all of the information available, time is limited, and there are a number of factors to be considered, relying on our intuition is more likely to occur.

Whichever process you engage in, there are a range of factors that may impact on the course of action you choose. Are there things about yourself (e.g. age, gender, educational background) that might impact on what you define as ethical behaviour? Are there situational factors such as the organisation you work for that could play a part? All of us could view the same situation, engage in a rational decision-making process, and still come to a different conclusion about what is the most ethical way to behave. So, the key is knowing yourself, understanding your situation, and taking a moment to consider how these factors might impact on the course of action you take when deciding the ‘right’ thing to do. Why not take that moment now?

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