Ethical Behavior Definition
Simply put, “ethical behavior” is knowing “right” from “wrong,” whether in the workplace or in personal life, and acting accordingly. Various factors can determine what an individual would deem to be “right” or “wrong,” including personal values derived from one’s own upbringing, religion, government, society and/or popular media, but in business, a code of ethics published by the company or organization can provide its own definition.
As such, ethical behavior guidelines in the workplace tend to be very general, relying on such universally basic concepts as “honesty,” “fairness” or “integrity,” but lack specificity when it comes to determining whether an employee has in fact behaved ethically after the fact. This shouldn’t be surprising, however, as the principle of ethics itself is often not clearly defined and at times self-conflicting, as we shall see.
In the context of the business world, however, we can understand it as an obligation that each company or organization has to make clear to its employees, clients and business partners what it upholds as ethical behavior. When this is done correctly, it can in fact empower those same to act with a clear conscience, and do what is expected of them.
Ethical Behavior Examples
In most situations, but in medicine/health care and law in particular, ethical behavior can be reduced down to 3 (or 4) basic principles.
Autonomy, or “respect for persons,” is about respecting the right of people to make their own decisions about their own lives, and affording them the dignity of their own personhood.
There are two corollaries to this idea: one, that we should not interfere with the right of persons to self-rule, and two, we should protect the same rights of those who are less capable.
Here we already have the potential for ambiguity and conflict – by protecting the rights of those who we deem as being less capable (and how is this determined?), we could in fact be running counter to the idea of self-rule, as, for instance, in law, when “power of attorney” is invoked for those deemed incapable of making decisions for themselves, as in the case of the elderly or the mentally challenged.
Beneficence is the idea that our actions should “do good,” and “do no harm” (the latter sometimes being categorized as a separate principle, that of “Non-maleficence” – the distinction has to do with the degree of intent; whether to simply prevent harm from being done, or do actively ensure that one’s actions do not cause harm).
Since the idea of “doing good” or “no harm” can be presented as a binary state (on or off) and therefore not very helpful, the corollary maxim of doing “maximum good” and “minimal harm” is often cited. This is similar to the idea of utilitarianism, coined in the 18th Century by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham as the “greatest good for the greatest number.”
Again, this points to potential conflict, as clearly principle no. 1 (autonomy) can and must be overruled in certain cases in the interest of beneficence (as, for example, when an individual wishes to intentionally harm others).
“Justice” can best be explained through the concept of “fairness” – each person should be afforded what is rightfully owed them in the grand scheme of things. In other words, we have an obligation to treat each person equally, fairly, and impartially.
The corollary to this is of course to place no “undue burden” on any one individual or group based on their (perceived) affiliation or background.
Here are some simple real-life examples illustrating each principle, in both business and personal situations:
- Autonomy – In place of announcing a pay raise freeze, a company offers flex-time benefits to all of its employees, allowing them to choose between a pay raise or a flexible schedule. In lieu of banning all mobile devices at the dinner table, a mother gives her children the choice between leaving the table early (no devices) or staying until everybody has finished eating (devices allowed).
- Beneficence – Rather than chiding employees for sub-par performance, a manager holds monthly meetings to recognize achievements, encouraging them to aim higher with additional incentives. After a disastrous first date, one party contacts the other to reassure them that they had a good time, that they did nothing wrong – only that the circumstances were not aligned.
- Justice – During “downsizing,” all employees are reviewed for their contribution, not for their seniority or affinity with management. After a “Friendsgiving” dinner, all guests stay to help with clean-up instead of dashing off.