The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


The First Step is to Recognize When an Issue is an Ethical One

“The ability to recognize an ethical dilemma is important, especially in today's society.”

Bill O'Rourke | February 19, 2016
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Someone holds a compass to show them the proper path. Ethics acts as a similar guiding force for those seeking the proper path.



Numerous articles and papers address the proper way to deal with ethical issues.

However, even before the facts are gathered, there’s a threshold determination that involves recognizing an ethical issue is involved. This is not always easy, especially in 2016. The average person working today is exposed to more data in one day than a worker received in an entire lifetime a century ago.

So, when a situation develops that is not routine, might involve inappropriate shortcuts, may offend others, show favoritism or appears to be a minor infraction, will there be adequate time available to provide sufficient scrutiny to determine if there even is an ethical issue that needs to be addressed? Or, in this world of data overload, too much on the plate and vicious competition, will the ethical issues be overlooked or short-changed?

A couple of examples:

Four individuals who work for one of your largest customers are sitting in an airport discussing the upcoming negotiations with your company. Can you listen and take notes?

When I have presented this in a business ethics class, the students discuss the matter as an ethical issue because of the context. But when I have raised this situation in a marketing class, often the students don’t even recognize the situation as possibly involving an ethical dilemma because the focus is on gathering customer data and information. Many corporations pay a lot of money to determine customer preference, willingness to pay, projected volumes, payment terms, etc., and in this situation, valuable information is being freely revealed.

Ethics must be one of the routine filters of the 21st-century leader and these customer representatives have no expectations of privacy. Yet, how “fair” is it to eavesdrop, even in a public place? These customer representatives are not being prudent, but does that permit you to take advantage of them? Some will say yes.

This situation happened to me. I stood, turned around and introduced myself and my company. I felt that I had an obligation to do that. Interestingly, they continued to talk and I decided that I fulfilled my obligation, listened then shared the information within my company. Did I act appropriately?

Some believe I still had an obligation to leave and not listen further. That’s where I like to note the importance of our own moral compass, which help guides our behavior. We should be acutely aware of what our moral compass is telling us because, at the end of the day, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and be comfortable with the person we see.

You have a consulting contract with a company owned by a college friend of yours and the annual consulting fee is about $100,000. You invite this friend and their spouse to your wedding and they give you a $2,500 wedding gift.

This isn’t even a work situation, or is it? Will you recognize it as a potential ethical situation? One interpretation could be that a close college friend, out of the goodness of his heart just gave you a $2,500 as a sincere, generous wedding gift. Another interpretation could be that one of your corporate suppliers just gave you a $2,500 kickback.

One of my rules is, if it looks wrong or feels wrong, don’t do it. This one really looks wrong to me. Even if the money gift acknowledged a strong friendship and your business-related conduct would not be swayed, others in your organization could perceive it differently. You cannot afford to have ethical misperceptions exist in your company.

This, too, is an actual situation that happened to a person reporting to me. After his honeymoon, he came back to work and told me about this gift. He did not see this as an ethical issue at all. After our discussion of the facts, the perceptions and doing what’s right, he decided to return the gift.

These kinds of issues happen every day throughout our organizations. Most are dealt with diligently and appropriately. But the initial, and arguably the most important step, is to identify the issue as an ethical one. Assuring that ethical issues get recognized as such can be helped by education and training, policies and procedures, a culture of transparency, and fair, firm, and consistent investigations and sanctions. But the most important factor is the tone set by the leaders of the organization.

The leaders must articulate their clear expectations in this ethical arena and act the way they want their employees to behave. That way, the chances of identifying an issue as an ethical one improves dramatically.

Bill O’Rourke is executive director of The Beard Institute, Duquesne University, Palumbo-Donahue School of Business.[i]


[i] Republished with permission from The Pittsburgh Business Times (Sept. 6-12, 2013)