How to Act (and Communicate) Ethically on the Job and Off

First, please understand that I am no expert in communicating ethically all the time, or even in making sound decisions. I would argue that neither are you. But before I go on, ask yourself, “Am I doing things right, or am I doing the right things?” Worldwide people think about doing the right thing every day. Whether you are in the C-suite or climbing your way up the corporate ladder, doing the right thing oftentimes weighs against other human motivations such as winning at all costs, getting what we want, reducing stress, and sometimes plain survival.

Most commonly, people think that doing what is right is gut instinct. However, ethical experts argue that acting ethically may come down to these common scenarios, particularly when we are communicating with our customers or employees. So, when faced with a dilemma, use one of these prompts to help you out:

  • The child on your shoulder. Are you okay doing the action, even if your children are watching?
  • The front page story. Would you feel comfortable if the action or behavior became front-page news in your local newspaper?
  • The golden rule. Would you accept this action if you were on the receiving end of it?
  • The rule of universality. Would it be okay with you if everyone in your organization would behave or act that way?

What Is Ethics Anyway, and Why Should It Matter?

Ethics, the study of moral standards and how they affect one’s conduct, helps provide sound justification for making decisions and communicating the why or why not of any decision. Organizationally, ethics is a system of right and wrong or acceptable v. unacceptable; it is often bound by policies or codes. However, as you well know, ethics are not clear cut. Therefore, personal ethics may play an outsized role. Personal ethics takes on a moral dimension for what is right or wrong based on one’s character, attitude and personal values.

According to Fernando O. Rivera, FACHE, chief executive officer for the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, “Ethics is a balance between character and competence.” He credits these character traits as a baseline for being an ethical professional while communicating with customers and employees:

  • Empathy
  • Flexibility
  • Persistence
  • Accountability

In my own work as a public affairs specialist and graduate school instructor for media ethics and inclusion, I rely on the following decision-making drivers:

  • Unconscious thoughts
  • Unthinking customs and practices
  • Ethical decision-making profile
  • Reflective thinking

To learn more about these key drivers, take some time to watch this video. This video comes from The Ethics Centre, an independent not-for-profit that advocates for a more ethical society.

So How Might We Decide?

As professionals, regardless of title or status, we must be deliberate in our communication and decision-making. In other words, we must have the courage to be the moral manager, encouraging normative behaviors that are linked to a common good. What we cannot forget is that moral identities vary. But ethical decision-making requires a thoughtful, reflective approach. Since our moral self serves as our North Star, we must work toward having both character (values) and competence (know-how) and be willing to account for our decision while remaining open to the environment, time and people involved.

Remember that character and competence contribute to the elements of trust necessary for good communications and business practices. Ethics is the cornerstone to building trust. Given that recent trust scores in nearly all sectors have plummeted, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, we could all use a good dose of ethical competence and stand-up character.

Stacie M. Rivera, PhD, MPH, APR, has more than 25 years’ experience in communications, public affairs, and public policy and administration. She is a public affairs specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Dr. Rivera has participated in the design and implementation of local and national communications campaigns that advance national health care initiatives for a variety of agencies including VA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Health and Human Services. She is an instructor with the West Virginia University College of Media Online Programs and with the School of Communication & Design, Loyola University New Orleans.

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