Encouraging Ethical Courage


By Christopher Swartz

There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers.

We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.

– Ronald Reagan

Doing the right thing is not always easy.

Sometimes this is simply because we don’t realize that what we are doing has ethical implications, what behavioral psychologists call ethical blindness. On the other hand, there are times when we are aware of the ethical dimensions of our decisions, but lack the confidence to act on that knowledge.

This lack of confidence can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we are torn between two or more conflicting loyalties. Other times there may appear to be little incentive to doing the right thing. And in some cases, fear – of hurting job prospects, undermining work relationships, loss of standing, retaliation, or worse – may cause us to hesitate in the moment, to lose our ethical courage.

Ethical courage consists of having the confidence to follow our conscience. Although we hope that employees will align their conduct with our organization’s established values and code of conduct, we know that this doesn’t always happen. Ultimately, a code of conduct can only go so far; it tells us what is the right thing to do, but it rarely tells us how to do it in the face of grave obstacles. Knowing what is the right thing to do does not guarantee that we will do the right thing. As T.S Eliot says in The Hollow Men: “between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow.”

To turn words into action, we as ethics practitioners must find ways to empower employees to take ownership of their own integrity as well as the integrity of their programs. This means ensuring that employees are prepared to overcome psychological and sociological barriers to doing the right thing. And it means finding ways to ensure that ethics-centered decision-making is the default.

Although there is much that can be done in this regard, three measures deserve highlighting: first, we can strive to create a positive association with the ethics office; second, we can roleplay ethical decision-making; and third, we can engage in strategic interventions.

Positive Association: Do employees know your name? Do they know what you look like? Do they know your voice, and have they had a chance to speak to you? Without a human connection, codes of conduct and values statements can be seen as impersonal, distanced from the everyday affairs of work. On the other hand, if the only time that employees meet with ethics officials is during mandated annual training or while being reprimanded, it is likely that the words “ethics advice” may leave a bad taste in their mouths. That is the very last thing we want our employees to feel when they are in the process of making important decisions: alone and without a trusted ear. As Robert Cialdini discusses in Influence: Science and Practice, familiarity and positive (or negative) associations are powerful motivators in the decision-making process. Imprinting favorable impressions of the ethics office on the minds of our employees may help remove some of the stress they can feel when making tough decisions. Ensuring that employees know that they have a champion in their corner, rooting them on, may just be enough to get them over the hump. At the very least, knowing that there is a trusted and respected ear in the organization may make our employees more likely to seek advice.

Practice: Too often employees are unprepared when confronted with a tough ethical decision. What seems straightforward in a rulebook is far less so in real life. We often spend hours drilling rules and values into our employee’s heads but sometimes leave them unprepared to encounter ethical decisions in the real world. They are unfamiliar with how to make an ethical decision when it matters most. As the old adage goes, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” One way to get past this is to have employees practice making ethical decisions in the context of their work. In her 1994 article in the Journal of Business Ethics, “Using Role Play to Integrate Ethics into the Business Curriculum a Financial Management Example,” Professor Dr. Kate Brown suggested roleplaying can help overcome this form of “ethical naivete.” There are various ways to include practice in training. Employees can be asked to act out case-based scenarios, or to spend time roleplaying directly prior to entering into a situation where there is ethical risk. A sales team that is preparing to negotiate a contract in a foreign area known for corruption could, for example, work through scenarios concerning the declination of bribes, gifts, and inappropriate hospitalities.

Strategic Intervention: In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Professor Dan Ariely discusses a series of studies in which university students were reminded of ethical codes (religious and non-religious) prior to taking a test. The studies showed that students who were reminded of such codes right before taking the test cheated less than students who had not received such prompts. It didn’t matter exactly what the code of conduct said, the mere fact of being reminded of the code was sufficient to influence behavior. For ethics practitioners, the take-away should be clear: timely interventions can help bolster our employee’s ethical courage. In some cases that may be as easy as strategically timing the release of ethics guidance or placing reminders in meeting rooms and offices where decisions are being made. At other times, it may require anticipating risks to specific projects and finding ways to effectively communicate with employees as those risks develop.

Creating positive associations with the ethics office, training employees to be prepared to make ethical decisions, and providing support at the critical moment can go a long way to bolstering employees’ ethical courage. And in a world where, as President Ronald Reagan noted, “there are no easy answers,” the courage to do the right thing may be the difference between the pathway of integrity and the pathway of corruption.

Christopher Swartz is Assistant Counsel at the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. He has also previously served as Ethics Counsel in the Office of the White House Counsel. Chris received his J.D. from New England School of Law | Boston and his B.A. from Elon University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics or of the U.S. Government.

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  1. Thanks for the post Chris. It should not be difficult to act in an ethical and moral fashion. But you are right – some employees are not prepared when confronted with a difficult ethical decision. They make bad choices, costing them in many areas, maybe most importantly, in reputation. Doing the right thing is not always easy but it is right.

  2. I have been attempting to set up an Ethics Rewards System in my organization and am having a bit of trouble steering people away from the notion that you are being rewarded to tell on your fellow team mates. Ideas on how I can best approach this situation?

    • Have them sign a document that asks whether they have followed all the ethics rules of the organization. Ask them to provide one example of how they excelled in ethical behavior during the past year — something they’ve done that shows a commitment to ethical values over and above organizational standards. Ask them to write a case study of an ethical dilemma/conflict in their department (without names) and use the best for ethics training programs.

  3. Well said Chris.
    May I add a couple of points that may help. It is crucial to actually teach ethics at an earlier age (college/ school age). This will certainly help to drill the concept and more importantly engage employees for better results. It is important for them why ethical conduct is good for them. As an example, for kids to be told not to lie and that’s it. It is better to teach them why lying is bad and hence ethically they should not.

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