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LeadingEdition: E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors

Ethics for supervisors: What is the ?right? thing to do?

Of the many pressures, tasks, and responsibilities that Purdue supervisors face, one of the more important, challenging, and controversial is the task of resolving questions of ethics.

In its simplest terms, ethics involves believing what is right, knowing what is right, and then demonstrating these beliefs and this knowledge through behaviors, decisions, and actions. But, the question remains, what is right?

The simplest technique for answering this question involves the use of a quick rules test. Savvy supervisors keep the test handy before taking any action that is central and essential to their role in getting work accomplished with the help of other people.

The test has five questions that must always be answered before a decision is made on behalf of Purdue University.

  1. Is the decision legal?

  2. Does it comply with Purdue?s policies, guidelines, and rules?

  3. Does it align with the University?s stated values, commitments, and vision?

  4. If my decision were to be published nationally, would my family and friends be proud of me?

  5. Would the most ethical person I know do the same thing?

Of course, being able to apply the test will require some work on the supervisor?s part, starting with knowing what is legal and within policy. One of this newsletter?s goals is to provide guidance on those laws and policies that are most misunderstood and inconsistently applied.

Assuming that the quick test is passed, the tough test is still ahead.

That test is deciding on competing rights. Competing rights means that you must make a decision from choices that are apparently all right (or all wrong). Choosing one violates the others. The skill is overcoming the ethical dilemma ? choosing between alternative unsatisfactory outcomes.

Examples of competing rights are described as ethical models, frameworks, or foundations. One foundation, named ?justice based,? asserts that the determination of right or wrong is based on the fairness of how recognition and rewards are distributed. A second foundation is ?outcome based,? whereby the establishment of right and wrong is determined by providing ?the greatest good for the greatest number.? A third foundation is described as ?universal rights based.? With this foundation, the standards of right and wrong behavior are based upon absolute and moral truths.

So let?s assume that Purdue University must make a decision about how its employees participate in benefits. Should benefits be awarded based upon fairness without regard to status? Should benefits be awarded based upon what will be the greatest good for the greatest number? Should benefits be awarded based upon long-standing absolute and moral truths?

Five steps are helpful in resolving such a dilemma.

  1. Identify the specific decision that must be made.

  2. In relation to the specific decision, consider each ethical foundation (as described above).

  3. Identify a solution scenario for each foundation.

  4. Review the organization?s values, commitments, and vision.

  5. Select the solution that best fits the organization?s values, commitments, and vision.

Thinking about the example above and applying the five steps, which solution is right?

For additional information see:

Ethics for Everyone, The Handbook for Integrity-Based Practices, Performance Systems Corporation, 2002.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, John Maxwell, 1998

LeadingEdge Web site

- Al Knight,
Assistant Director of Human Resource Services
for Organization and Career Development

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LeadingEdition is an electronic newsletter for Purdue University supervisors.  It is produced and distributed by Purdue University Human Resources four times annually.  If you have questions, comments or suggestions relating to the newsletter, please call 49-41679 or email us.  Thank you.