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Character and Trust is Key to Ethical Decision-Making

Virtues Underlie Workplace Behavior

Writer Robert McKee famously said "True character is revealed in the choices a human makes under pressure -- the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature."

This is a profound statement that I use to teach ethics to my accounting students, many of whom will face pressures in the workplace to compromise their values. Integrity forms the basis for character-based decisions because it supports virtue-based decision-making.

Some people will remain composed under pressure and remain in control of the situation while others will lose control of their emotions and the situation very quickly. The result is relationships can deteriorate and workplace ethics suffers as a result.

To retain one’s character and act appropriately in the workplace requires discipline; respect for others; openness to a diversity of opinions; and the willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions. Hasty decisions and offensive remarks in response to a conflict situation rarely turn out well because ethical decision making requires reason, deliberation, and wisdom of an ethical leader. True leaders lead by example and form an ethical culture that brings others along.

Aristotle writes that, “the work of a man is achieved only in accordance with practical wisdom as well as moral virtue, for virtue makes us aim at the highest mark and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” A person lacking in virtuous character is less likely to make sound ethical deliberations.

The "Character-Based Decision-Making Model" model, developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, can be applied to many common problems and can also be used by most individuals facing ethical dilemmas.

It involves three steps:

All decisions must take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and well-being of all affected individuals ("stakeholders").

The underlying principle here is the Golden Rule — help when you can, avoid harm when you can.

Ethical values and principles always take precedence over nonethical ones.

Ethical values (i.e. honesty, integrity, trustworthiness) are morally superior to nonethical ones (i.e. fame, power, wealth). When faced with a clear choice between such values, the ethical person should always choose to follow ethical principles.

It is ethically proper to violate an ethical principle only when it is clearly necessary to advance another true ethical principle, which, according to the decision-maker's conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run.

Some decisions will require you to prioritize and to choose between competing ethical values and principles when it is clearly necessary to do so because the only viable options require the sacrifice of one ethical value over another ethical value. When this is the case, the decision-maker should act in a way that will create the greatest amount of good and the least amount of harm to the greatest number of people.

Turning now to how character-based decision making influences the actions of our business and political institutions, John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, has pointed out that such organizations are undergoing a crisis in trust. Most of the major organizations that we depend upon, including governments of all types, corporations, and our financial institutions all seem to be failing us. Virtually all of our societal organizations seem to have either forgotten or have never really known why they exist and what their higher purposes are. Instead, they have often elevated narrow individual and institutional self-interest into the only purposes that they recognize as valid.

Our governments all too frequently serve the interests of the politicians and various other special interests rather than their citizens. Many of our corporations primarily exist to maximize the compensation of their executives and, secondarily, shareholder value rather than value creation for customers, employees, and other major stakeholders.

The single most important requirement for the creation of higher levels of trust for any organization is to discover or rediscover the higher purpose of the organization. Why does the organization exist? What is it trying to accomplish? What core values will inspire the organization and create greater trust from all of its stakeholders?

The answer to the problem with our institutions today is a lack of character-based leadership. Corporations feel pressured to make it appear as though they are doing better than they really are. Politicians feel pressured by special interest groups to take up their cause in return for political financing and support. The public good gets shoved into the background because “leaders” place their own interests ahead of those they represent.

We need to emphasize character-based education in the schools and not just in college. It should be integrated into K-12 instruction to provide a foundation for ethical behavior and values-based decision making. We need true leaders to model ethical behavior in all they do based on a foundation of character informed by integrity and trust.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 29, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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