Questions Female Leaders Can Ask When Facing An Ethical Dilemma

Recently I taught a class on ethics in the Middle East and was asked if morals should trump professional ethics. My answer to the question was it’s a slippery slope, and my sense is they probably shouldn’t overlap.

It’s important to define the difference between the two, and the easiest way I can explain ethics is that it’s an external set of rules proposed by a group. The group could be the workplace, religion or society.

Morals, on the other hand, are driven from internal process. When the student asked me if morals should be more important than ethics, it caused me to pause. The honest answer is that if you are working for a corporation or took an oath as an engineer, attorney or doctor does, morals may not have a place in your profession. For example, if you are a defense attorney and your client committed murder and you personally know they are guilty, your job – like it or not – is to defend your client to the best of your ability.

Ethics are not your feelings, opinions or judgments. In fact, some may have good ethic practices, but morally recoil from a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.

The more I looked at the difference between morals and ethics is that morals can be judgments for feelings that overlapped one’s perception while ethics can be a formal set of rules designated by a company, policy or profession.

All of which puts leaders in daily conundrums with the decision they make in business, for their employees and for the health of a company. Many leaders prefer to rely on data and numbers to make decisions, rather than their feelings. Too much rationale can tip the scales the wrong way because sometimes your employee’s feelings cannot be quantified. And, sometimes an employee’s feelings can drive their behavior, which can impact the bottom line.

Ethics Vs Morals2 - Elizabeth Lions

Likewise, too much feeling in a leader can lead to team confusion and worse, manipulation. Data in business keeps the compass of right and wrong and ethics in sight.

Rather than making an issue more clear, my concern during class was that I made it fuzzy.

I think for women in leadership, it’s all about balance. Some women leaders tend to lean on the edge of high morals but not have ethics. Other leaders are all about the ethics and forget the people element. When facing an office snafu it’s best to keep decisions and reprimands around the policy, and not the person. Meaning: don’t find a scapegoat and make it personal. If a mistake happened, look into the policy that was broken and why.

Here are some questions a leader can ask to provide clarity when facing an ethical decision:

1) Do I have all the facts?

2) What are the options?

3) What decision can I make that will be best for all parties involved?

4) What decision treats all fairly?

5) If I make this decision what does it say about me as a person?

6) Will my choice cause any damage to other parties?

After an ethical decision is made, it’s always advised to reflect on the outcome.