Ethical Decision Making: Easy in Training, Harder in Reality

Over the course of a workday, people make innumerable decisions ranging in degrees of severity, from critical to mundane. Often times, choices are made in a vacuum and are considered for only as long as it takes until the next intellectual dilemma or distraction demands our attention. A recent piece by Eugene Soltes in Harvard Business Review explores the difficulty around  ethical decision-making, while also exploring the gap between attempts to train or educate people on organizational ethics and the real-world pressures people face when face with an ethical dilemma (or even recognizing that they may be in an ethical quandary).

Soltes, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, points to a variety of executive misdoings by ostensibly smart and talented— not to mention prominent— leaders that illustrate that even those under scrutiny and fully aware of their responsibility for shareholder funds can act in self-serving ways that, in retrospect, they realize are obviously unethical. And, as Soltes writes, in hindsight the fact that these were adverse decisions are not lost on  these individuals, but in the moment they failed to consider the impact or consequences.

The question then becomes: why are we so consistently blind towards the ethics of our decisions? Content on our decision-making research page illuminates the concepts of bounded ethicality, ethical fading and the competing priorities of our “want” self versus our “should” self, all of which contribute to decisions that, in retrospect, can appear clearly unscrupulous.

Where the Soltes essay has the most relevance for today’s business is around corporate training. He identifies several prominent ways in which ethics training differs from real world scenarios, particularly relating to an individual’s ability to identify the existence of an ethics issue in the heat of the moment, and the time allotted to fully considering the consequences of a decision. Most relevant in real-life scenarios is the time pressure we are usually faced with when making a decision, i.e. it is more abbreviated than most exercises allow. Therefore, as Soltes says, “When there’s precious little time to deeply reflect on decisions, we rely on routines and the surrounding norms to dictate behavior.”

In addition to rewriting training scenarios to better reflect the situations in which decisions are made, the key as we here at Ethical Systems have widely endorsed is to look at culture / corporate environment as the most relevant area to affect broad, positive change. As per Soltes:

The challenge for organizations is to cultivate environments where ethical decisions are easier, not more difficult. Creating training exercises that better simulate the actual environment, circumstances, and pressures where ethical decisions are made is the first step toward addressing these critical challenges.

We encourage reading this piece and considering how you can adopt the findings to your company to induce more ethical decision making.

*image courtesy of Harvard Business Review

Further Reading:



As the Director of the first ministry in the U.S. created to support individuals and families with white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues, and as someone who served time in a Federal prison for a white-collar crime I committed when I was a lawyer, I can state unequivocally that Professor Soltes's methodology and his conclusions are "pure rubbish." Why They Do It, and the press releases and media attention surrounding it, are shamelessly exploitive and are designed solely to sell books; they inflame bigotry and hatred and paint people with a broad brush designed to promote stigma, shunning and Schadenfreude (unfortunately, themes for our time it seems).

I have issued a challenge to Professor Soltes to debate his book's methodology and conclusions. He has turned down this opportunity to engage in respectful debate and discussion.

I am sure if we re-interviewed his subjects, most or all would say they had been duped into letting down their guards in sharing intensely personal details of their lives and feelings on the promise and belief that Soltes's book would be fair and balanced. If indeed he disclosed to them that he was writing a book at all?

We have worked with hundreds of men, women and families involved in and suffering from these matters, and most are not the subjects of the sensationalized headlines that Soltes claims to have interviewed. In fact, the overwhelming majority are ordinary people, professionals who live down the street, whose children play with yours, who simply got in over their heads due to desperation, addiction, compulsion or mental illness. Most didn't have the ego strength to simply talk to their spouses and admit that life was not going the way they had hoped and dreamed, until they had stepped over the line and it was too late.

Contrary to Soltes's core thesis statement, most have been mired in shame, guilt and remorse even before they were caught. It is terrifying and exhausting to spend their lives looking over their shoulders knowing that they've done something that far wrong. Whether they aware of it or not, almost all go through some kind of transformation from a material life to a more spiritual one. What other choice do they (we) have?

Although I probably have "interviewed" 4 or 5 times as many people accused or convicted of white-collar crimes and their families, I'm not arrogant enough to assert that I understand "why" anyone did or does anything. But then again, I didn't write a book claiming I do. Note the clever, and frightening, [person change in] the title of the Professor's book: why THEY do it: inside the mind of THE white-collar criminal! Aren't we a society that has fought against, and protected people from, this sort of propaganda that aggregates and assigns characteristics to an entire class of people in order to marginalize them and promote fear of them?

Our society has evolved enough that mass incarceration and related topics are now dinner-table conversation; they are finally part of the national debate. I am glad that we give many violent criminals a second chance, and indeed all of God's children deserves our empathy, compassion and kindness. But white-collar criminals have little such chance, largely because of the kind of book written by Professor Soltes.

We can do better.

Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Founder/Director, Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc., Greenwich CT & Nationwide,