Regardless of facts, staff members may feel harmed if decisions appear unethical or self-serving. Using the organizational justice framework can help leaders dissect such situations and address them ethically.
Effective leaders know that employees respond to them based upon perceptions of how their leaders’ behave and treat others. Ethics essentially refers to whether certain behavior is regarded as good or bad based upon societal, professional, organizational, or personal standards. As a leader, it is essential to recognize when employees regard behavior as unethical because such perceptions are a barrier to engagement, performance, and productivity.
An ethical decision-making model can help leaders create and sustain environments in which employees can fully focus on their jobs rather than become sidetracked by what they perceive as ethical violations. Before considering an ethical decision-making model, two issues should be addressed: a framework for thinking about fairness and the concept of ethical sensitivity. The framework presented here is inspired by the work of organizational justice scholars and researchers.
Fairness and Organizational Justice
When people are treated differently, they often feel harmed. For example, imagine that two individuals are hired in the same department by the same manager at the same time, yet one of the new employees develops a closer relationship with the manager. The manager promotes this employee before promoting the other employee. Regardless of the facts of the situation, the employee and others may view this situation as the manager playing favorites—a situation that can be evaluated based on the organizational justice framework.
Organizational justice is a framework designed to help leaders recognize which type of injustice is operative in a particular situation. There are three types of organizational justice: distributive, procedural, and interactional.
Distributive justice. Distributive justice addresses the outcomes of decisions or allocations of resources or costs. In the aforementioned example, the employee who was not promoted may have negative feelings about the decision to promote her colleague.
Procedural justice. Procedural justice involves how decisions, whether regarded as fair or unfair, are made. In the above example, the employee who was not promoted may agree with the decision but disagree with the manner in which the decision was made.
Interactional justice. Interactional justice focuses on how individuals are treated in particular situations. Again, based upon the staff promotion example, the employee who was not promoted may harbor negative feelings about how, where, and when the decision was communicated.
The lesson to be learned for leaders and managers is that when employees allege unfair situations, leaders should dissect whether employees are referring to distributive justice, procedural justice, and/or interactional justice. Once leaders identify the type of organizational justice violated, they are in positions to address situations.
Better yet, prior to making decisions or allocating time and monetary resources, leaders should engage in scenario planning using this organizational framework to prevent any allegations of “unfairness.”
The second issue to consider is the concept of ethical sensitivity. Ethical sensitivity is the ability to recognize the ethical aspects of decisions, even when they do not seem to be related to ethics at all. For example, such routine decisions as moving staff from one cubicle to another or upgrading a software system may involve ethical issues. To further develop your ethical sensitivity, focus on enhancing these capabilities.
- Identify possible ethical issues and dilemmas in your day to day work.
- Consider other perspectives.
- Seek to understand the underlying values behind different opinions, views, and perspectives.
- Slow down and deliberate prior to making a decision to think through the short- and long-term consequences for different stakeholders and any possible harm that may result from making a specific decision.
Ethical Decision-Making Model
There are numerous ethical decision-making models. They resemble standard problem-solving models, except they focus on the ethical aspects of decisions. The following five-step decision-making model represents a combination of research evidence and years of experience educating, coaching, and advising leaders and managers.
- Frame decisions from ethical perspectives, which are broader than economic and legal perspectives.
- Identify possible negative consequences of decisions for multiple stakeholders; be sure to look beyond impacts and benefits to decision makers.
- Generate alternatives to reduce and/or eliminate negative consequences.
- Select optimal alternative(s) given existing resources and other constraints.
- Test decisions and determine their impacts, focusing upon how different stakeholders are affected by decisions.
Using downsizing as an illustrative example, let’s walk through this model.
- Downsizing will reduce costs while at the same time increase legal exposure, public relations exposure, and allegations of unfair treatment of employees.
- The possible negative consequences are equal employment opportunity claims and lawsuits (legal consequences), unfavorable media attention (public relations consequences), survivor syndrome (health consequences), and burnout (productivity consequences).
- To achieve cost reduction targets, are there other ways beyond downsizing to achieve the cost targets and have these options been explored (Martin, W. & Davis, A., “Alternatives to downsizing: an organizational innovation approach,” International Journal of Business and Social Research, July 2013, pp. 19-27)?
- Assuming the decision is to downsize, draw upon organizational justice and determine how the decision will be implemented (procedural justice) and how employees will be treated (interactional justice).
- After the decision has been made, track and monitor all of the consequences, positive and negative, in the near term and long term.
Applying this model should help leaders in these types of situations face the many potential ethical issues related to downsizing, from the mundane to the strategic. For example, consider situations in which leadership teams earn incentive bonuses as a result of cost savings related to downsizings. Ethicists would describe this as violating the principles of distributive justice. Specifically, the outcomes for one group (i.e., decision makers) and the outcomes of the group impacted (i.e., downsized workers) are out of balance—one group benefits at the expense of another group.
The Ethics Challenge
The bottom line regarding ethical decision making is to “first do no harm.” On the surface, this makes sense and is not controversial. In practice, this can be a challenge because of competing and conflicting interests. A step-by-step process can help leaders address the potential ethical dilemmas and quandaries lurking behind every decision.
William Marty Martin is an associate professor and director of Health Sector Management & Organizational Diversity MBA concentrations, DePaul University, Chicago.