At a glance
Faced any ethical issues at work lately? If you haven’t, I’d be surprised. Yet so often I hear: “I am lucky. I do not face ethical issues at work.” This statement can elicit great delight or great concern. For me it tends to be the latter because I can’t imagine how that may be possible for any type of work.
Human interaction involves ethical issues. So to say that you do not face ethical issues at work implies that your work does not impact or affect anyone. I have not been able to identify such a work role as yet.
So why is it that some people feel that they rarely, if ever, face ethical issues at work? Perhaps it doesn’t point to an absence of ethical issues, but to an absence of the ethics lens needed to see them when they arise.
We know that unless the moral aspect of an issue is recognised, moral criteria won’t be used to resolve it. The problem is that sometimes we see only part of an issue. For example, if we think recalling a defective product is only about how much the recall will cost, then we may not think about the potential harm the product could cause customers.
The problem isn’t whether there is a moral issue – there clearly is – but whether we identify it. Sometimes, particularly at work, we cannot.
While unethical or immoral decisions draw a lot of attention, amoral decisions tend to attract less scrutiny.
Immoral decisions involve us looking at the ethics of an issue and then choosing an option that clashes with our values.For example, I know that I should be fair and objective in my work, but I consciously make a decision that will harm my client and benefit myself.
Yet what happens if I have to decide what advice to provide to my client and I do not even consider whether it is fair and objective, because I’m only thinking about reaching my targets? There is an important difference between these two approaches.
In the first instance, I consider the ethical issue; in the second, I do not, and do not make a moral judgement. The latter situation is, I think, more dangerous because I do not fully consider the moral content of my decision. I am morally blind to the issue, my duties and the consequences.
Unfortunately, at work the problem is less about people being hell-bent on acting unethically, and more about not turning on their ethics vision when needed.
Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.