The Right Thing: Strategies for Dealing with Ethical Ambiguity in the Workplace

Ethical ambiguity

Addressing the topic “Understanding the Ambiguity of Ethics” at CYBER HITEC on October 29, Dr. Judy Holcomb, CHAE, stressed the difficultly of navigating ethically ambiguous situations that exist even in the typically less nuanced areas of accounting and technology. Holcomb, who is an associate professor of hospitality management at the Saint Leo University School of Business, defined ambiguity, explored its relationship to ethics, and presented some practical methods that can be used to make decisions in unclear ethical situations.

Citing David Johnson and Elaine Howard Ecklund, she said, “Ethical ambiguity is a set of circumstances where the line separating legitimate and illegitimate behavior is grey rather than black or white.” This ethical uncertainty—i.e., blurring of the lines between right and wrong—she noted, can be especially problematic for accountants and IT professionals. “Most of us went into these fields because we like the preciseness of the job, so not having the right answer can be quite frustrating.”

She described three distinct types of ambiguous situations that can make rational or logical decisions more difficult:

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  1. A completely new situation in which there are no familiar cues;
  2. A complex situation in which there are a great number of cues to be taken into account; and
  3. A contradictory situation in which different elements contain different cues.

One of the main problems with ambiguous situations, she said, is that they tend to make it easier to justify ethical transgressions. This, she explained, is especially true of people who have a high tolerance for ambiguity. On the scored tolerance-for-ambiguity continuum, she said, those with a low or very low tolerance for ambiguity quickly become uncomfortable or even upset when asked to act on something without clarity, while those with moderate tolerance prefer clear direction but are able to approach and complete the task without direction. At the other end are the high scorers—those who are comfortable with uncertainty, and may even relish the challenge of reaching an objective without direction.

Holcomb said where tolerance for ambiguity and ethics intersect often pertains to attitudes toward rules. Predictably, those least willing to proceed without certainty are most likely to follow company rules while those with the very highest tolerance for ambiguity are most likely to cross the line in terms of ethics.

Holcomb touched on situations when it isn’t exactly ambiguity that nudges people to violate their own principles in the face of powerful forces, including buy-in to “group think” that discourages dissension; pressure to be a team player; familiar rationales such as, “That’s how it’s always been done;” or even the direct orders of a supervisor. “Psychological pressure in organizations can cause even people with good intentions to comply or act unethically. Good character isn’t enough,” she asserted.

Among Holcomb’s tips for evaluating and responding to situations that may be ethically ambiguous are: “First, avoid overconfidence; realize every situation is important and give it its due diligence. Second, consciously avoid incrementalism—the tendency to move toward unethical behavior one step at a time. Third, if there is an ethical issue, acknowledge it and decide how to address it—possibly with a structured framework [see below] and a discussion with a trusted friend or mentor.”

Holcomb said the framework below can help determine whether there is an ethical issue, and what to do about it:

  • Who are stakeholders—is it a client, a firm, society at large?
  • Who do you owe a duty to—yourself, the company, client?
  • What are the important facts?
  • What additional information might be required to help make a proper decision?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest—e.g., incentives, relationships?
  • Are there internal/external pressures—e.g., those of self or others?
  • What are possible alternative actions?

Holcomb said there’s no magical answer or set of ethical principles that can be applied to all situations. “However, if we adopt tools that are available to us and learn to deal with situations in the best way possible, we’ll be in a much better position to handle ethical dilemmas as they arise.” She added that organizations that seek to enhance ethical behavior should attempt to reduce ambiguity and make things clearer by having a code of ethics or ethical standards for typical situations that may arise.

 


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