Effective Leadership in the Ethical Decision Making Process

Effective leaders weigh the ethical pros and cons of each solution presented.
Effective leaders weigh the ethical pros and cons of each solution presented. (Image: Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Rarely are decisions in the business world black-and-white. Company leaders must routinely evaluate the ethics of their decisions to steer businesses in the right direction. While employees and mid-level managers might participate in the decision-making process for your company, it’s up to company leaders to provide effective leadership in making the final, ethical choice. Evaluating the role leadership plays throughout the ethical decision-making process can help decision-makers fine-tune behavior to the best benefit of the company.


The ethical decision-making process begins with defining the problem. Not all parties may agree on the problem, making it difficult to identify potential solutions. For example, a nightclub’s bartenders routinely work until 4 a.m., remaining long after closing hours to mop the floors, balance registers and restock alcohol. One bartender, who has a six-month-old baby, has asked permission to leave work right at 1:30 a.m. in the future in order to better care for her child. An effective leader might frame this small problem within a larger ethical context, perceiving the problem as how to address the needs of hard-working staff members while being fair to other workers.

Involved Parties

Leaders play a role in the next step of the ethical decision-making process, which involves identifying involved parties. Ethical decisions take into account the preferences and concerns of involved parties. Each preference may not be rewarded in the final decision, but effective leaders weigh the pros and cons of taking each party's preferred outcome into consideration. The nightclub owner may prefer to let the employee leave early since this reduces overhead labor costs. Other employees may resent their coworker leaving early, since this can be viewed as preferential treatment if they must remain until 4 a.m. The bartender parent prefers the flexibility of leaving early.

Solutions and Outcomes

The ethical decision-making process takes into account possible solutions and outcomes in resolving the problem. If the employee is permitted to leave early, other employees may begin to make similar disruptive requests, and they may need to assume extra work burdens. Denying the request could mean demonstrating inflexibility and lack of support for your employees’ family lives. Deliberating over possibilities gives effective leaders time to develop a viewpoint on the best solution.


Effective leaders involve others in the decision-making process since other parties will be affected by the final outcome. Privately talking with the other bartenders without the parent bartender present allows free discourse so that everyone’s opinion is heard. In this case, coworkers might be divided. Some may happily consent, saying that they support their colleague having extra time with a new baby. Others might point out that this creates more work for the other coworkers. Listening to employee viewpoints generates a compromised solution: The parent bartender may leave early but must arrive for her shift an hour earlier than coworkers to cut fruit, stock ice tubs and take care of other preparation tasks that other bartenders dislike completing. In this case, effective leadership guided employees toward an ethical decision without imposing unfair expectations on staff by taking their viewpoints into consideration.

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