How to Improve Professional Ethics

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Ethics act as a way to help many professionals make better decisions. In a tough situation, making an ethical decision is often the result of a well-thought-out process, drawing together different schools of thought from several different perspectives. A good ethical decision takes into account all aspects of an ethical argument in search of the common good. According to the book "The Good Life: Ethics and the Pursuit of Happiness" by Herbert McCabe and Brian Davies, much of ethics is based on arguments made by early philosophers like Aristotle and Nietzsche.

Search for ethics guidelines within your profession. Doctors, journalists and lawyers all adhere to a professional code of ethics. Introducing employees to these codes can help them understand what is expected of them and how to conduct themselves as it is related to their profession. Many such resources are available online.

Give employees a test and discuss the results. Take a real life example (relate it to their profession) and ask questions about the situation -- is it right, fair or how will their decision impact others? Their colleagues? Others in their profession? In the book “Essentials of Management,” author Andrew DuBrin suggests presenting a scenario where employees must choose between two rights rather than a right versus wrong.

Explain the consequences of unethical behavior. As the old saying goes, “What’s ethical is not always legal and what’s legal is not always ethical.” In every profession, certain acts produce consequences. A lawyer’s cozy relationship with a judge who then hands down a decision in the lawyer’s favor can lead to that very lawyer being disciplined – even losing his or her law license. A nurse leaving a patient unattended may lead to that patient becoming even more sick or remaining in hospital even longer.

Conduct an ethics workshop. In a large conference room or auditorium, present ethical cases and then split participants into smaller groups. Present a set of questions, including setting out who are the stakeholders, who will be harmed or helped by the decision and what are all possible outcomes. Since this is a group discussion, workers are able to hear the ideas of their co-workers, learning from each other.

Make ethics a part of the daily discussion. Pose a question to the staff via a daily email or once a week post an ethical situation for workers to review during a break. Print an ethical theme, question or case in an employee newsletter. Getting people to talk about ethics will help improve dialogue.

Tips & Warnings

  • Check with your local Chamber of Commerce to see if they sponsor anything related to ethics. Local colleges and universities with business schools often have an "ethics institute" where ethical discussions take place. The Harvard Business Review at hbr.org is an excellent resource for finding case studies, tips and workshop ideas.

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