When you were nine and accidentally knocked your baseball through the neighbor’s window with a thundering crash, your decision to either face the consequences or run off and hide involved ethics. You made a split-second choice between right and wrong, and chances are that no matter what your choice, your decision taught you an important lesson.
Most of us were taught the basics of ethics by our parents, teachers, faith leaders, or other authority figures: tell the truth, play fair, don’t hurt other people, and accept responsibility for our own actions. If ethics are simple enough for a child to grasp, why are they suddenly such a big deal in the working world? Why do we need educational programs and Codes of Conduct? Why doesn’t the university simply trust people to do the right thing without being constantly reminded?
Unfortunately, the choice between right and wrong usually isn’t as obvious as we might think. In fact, many decisions are made quickly or under pressure, sometimes before we even realize the situation has ethical implications. And even though we feel capable of making personal judgments of right or wrong, we also need to pay attention to other factors, such as the law or our university policies and regulations that may affect the issue. It’s important to learn to examine all angles of a situation before making a decision.
A Closer Look at Ethics
Let’s take a closer look at a few ethical decisions faced by ordinary people in an average office:
- Tammy works for EZ Software Company and sells computers to ABC University. Tammy normally works with university employee, Chuck, for these types of purchases and regularly takes him out to lunch, offers him free tickets to football games and concerts. Chuck’s employee, Bill, notices these exchanges and wonders if these are appropriate and maybe feels a little jealous since he isn’t being offered any of these gifts. What should Bill do?
- Dr. Smith is conducting research under a government sponsored project with the assistance of two graduate students. He also hired his wife under his grant as the lab manager. Her duties are somewhat general. For example, she orders supplies, maintains the lab equipment, and oversees the graduate students. An employment of relatives form was completed with another lab manager listed as Mrs. Smith’s supervisor but, in actuality, that supervisor provides no real supervision. Kathy, the payroll coordinator for Dr. Smith’s department, has noticed over the past year that Dr. Smith has given his wife three salary increases. What should Kathy do?
- Ted is a purchasing manager at ABC University. He works long hours and doesn’t feel recognized or fairly compensated for his efforts. One day, a salesperson from a new vendor he is considering suggests that if Ted gives him the business, there’ll be something in it for Ted. Ted has a baby on the way and he could sure use that money. What should Ted do?These situations all involve ethical decisions. At their core, they are about honesty and doing what is right. If Bill doesn’t report that his boss Chuck is accepting gifts from a vendor, no one will know and maybe he’ll start being offered these gifts too. Is it right to accept these gifts, given that university employees are stewards of the university’s resources and funds? Is it proper that Dr. Smith unilaterally gives pay raises to his wife due to the spousal relationship? Ted really needs the money and feels like he deserves it, but would it be the right thing to do, given that other vendors are bidding on the business?
Who Decides What’s Right?
Who decides what’s right? That depends on the situation. For Bill, state statutes governing the Florida Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees applies not only to him but also his supervisor, Chuck. In the next story, Tracy should consider how the university’s policy on employment of relatives has been circumvented and violated by Dr. Smith. Just like Bill, Ted should review the Florida Code of Ethics for Public Officers before he makes his decision.
Each of these situations involves a personal ethical judgment of right or wrong. Bill, Kathy, and Ted must each determine whether the choice they make violates their own values or ethics. These examples demonstrate that ethics, as they relate to work, are about fairness and honesty as defined by university policy, the law, and your own ethics.
Making the Right Decision
Now let’s look at how the situations turned out:
- Bill thought about schmoozing up to Tammy so that he would be offered gifts like Chuck, but he knew as a state employee that the gifts were meant to influence official action. Bill did not feel comfortable bringing this up with Chuck but knew that it should be reported. Fortunately, ABC University has an IntegrityLine for its employees to anonymously report potential misconduct. Bill reported the situation, and Chuck was investigated for violating state gift statutes.
- Kathy eventually reported the salary increases to her supervisor who then worked with their compliance and ethics office to look into the employment of relatives issue. It was discovered that the ‘acting’ supervisor was not supervising the wife, the wife had no special skills unique to the type of work her husband was doing, and Dr. Smith was benefiting from the salary increases he kept giving to his wife. Since the wife was unable to find another position outside of her husband’s lab, she was terminated and Dr. Smith was disciplined for violating university policy.
- Ted decided to take the kickback, and his problems started soon after. The salesperson’s boss found out about it and called Ted’s boss. Ted was fired– but that was just the beginning. He had trouble finding another job, and he had problems getting health insurance. His wife and new baby were impacted– and it all started with one bad choice.
Doing the right thing pays off. Making the wrong choice can haunt you forever.
Responsibility and Rewards
It wasn’t easy for Bill and the payroll coordinator to do the right thing. But, their actions came with rewards for the university and for them as individuals. Keep these in mind when you consider your next decisions:
- On a personal level, good relationships thrive on a sense of trust. How do you feel about people in your life when you feel they have been less than honest with you?
- Honesty and trust create a more productive working environment. Think how much more efficient you are when you can trust people to do what they promise. When everyone plays by the same rules, we all win.
- When the university has a reputation for honesty and doing the right thing, word gets around. We can attract the best employees available– and keep them.
- Good employees help build and sustain a culture of ethics and the university’s reputation. This, in turn, attracts the best students and supports them in their educational journey. This makes the university more successful and all of our jobs more secure.
- Finally, when we obey laws we avoid large penalties for us and the university. Penalties for violation of certain laws now involve fines in the millions of dollars, as well as jail terms for individuals.
Always remember that UCF is committed to supporting the right ethical choices. Sometimes, employees make wrong choices because they believe it will benefit the university or that they will look better to their management. This is not the case at all. If you are faced with a difficult ethical situation, speak up. Seek help from your supervisor, Human Resources, Ombudsperson, or University Compliance, Ethics, and Risk.
Your Personal Responsibility
Each of us must accept our personal responsibility to understand the laws and policies that affect our work. That way, we won’t unknowingly do something that is considered unethical or unlawful. Beyond obeying the laws and policies, we must also recognize the right choice and have the moral conviction to act upon it, no matter how tough that action may be.
Coming to the right conclusion isn’t always as obvious as confessing to your neighbor that it’s your baseball in the middle of the glass shards on the living room rug. But the core issues of right versus wrong, the sense of honesty or doing the right thing, are exactly the same. And so is the way you feel when you’ve done the right thing.
Framework for Ethical Decision Making
Recognize an Ethical Issue
- Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group?
- Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “goods” or two “bads”?
- Is the issue about more than what is legal or what is most efficient?
Get the Facts
- Who will be impacted?
- What are your obligations?
- What are possible options and consequences (harm, perception, etc.)?
Evaluate Alternate Actions
Consider your values, the university’s values, and evaluate options by asking the following questions:
- Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?
- Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?
- Which option treats people equally or proportionately?
- Which option best serves the community as a whole?
Make a Decision and Test It
After deciding on the option that best addresses the situation, ask yourself:
- If I told someone I respect or told a television audience what would they say?
- Would I be comfortable with my decision printed in the newspapers for all to read?
- Is my decision consistent with the university’s values?
Act and Reflect on the Outcome
- Was my decision implemented with the greatest care and attention for the concerns of all stakeholders?
- What was the impact of my decision?
- How did my decision turn out?
- What have I learned from my decision?
Valesquez, M., Moberg, D., Meyer, M, Shanks, T., McLean, M., DeCosse, D., Andre, C., and Hanson, K. (2009, May) A Framework for Thinking Ethically. Retrieved from http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html
The Framework for Ethical Decision Making is also available at https://compliance.ucf.edu/ethics/framework-for-ethical-decision-making/