Managing ethical conflicts in for-purpose organisations

If you're working in or run a for-purpose business there are undoubtedly going to be times when you have conflicting ethical principles at play. This can be unsettling for staff, cause rifts in executive teams, and damage organisations' reputations. Once you put your hand up to be a for-purpose organisation you are stating to the world that you operate from an ethical base. People will, of course, project their own interpretation of what that means on to you and regardless of that subjectivity, it means your actions will be heavily scrutinised by both staff and the community.

Of course, you are not always - and in fact probably rarely will you be - able to pursue every project that fits within your mission; choosing one will likely mean giving up another (or many) that is deeply important to you and your staff. Or it may mean prioristing one ideological focus over another, which can isolate groups of employees. In my experience, this need to compromise in for-purpose businesses causes more conflict and dis-engagement than any other factor. People join because they are expecting an alignment of values and when something they see as deeply important doesn't get prioritised it can feel to an employee like too much of a personal and ethical compromise. They can feel mislead and let down and may struggle to align themselves on an ongoing basis.

Take for example a business I know I who made an 'all lives matter' statement during the height of the black lives matter movement. They didn't take this position from the right-wing perspective, but from a 'women's lives matter, trans lives matter, etc' perspective. A small group of staff found this messaging deeply antithetical to their values and resigned. Here's what the CEO of that business said:

"I had huge pressure to make a statement during the hight of the protests; my staffing cohort is mostly older women working in the family violence field; they see women dying every week. I also had a group of younger staff who haven't had that same experience; they were deeply upset that the broader organisational group didn't see the specific importance and nuance of BLM. I don't think either side is right. I think they're equally valid points of view. Organisationally, however, because I felt it represented the views of the majority of our staff and the women who make up our client base, I went with all lives matter and captured in the graphics we used all the minority groups we could think of. I couldn't think of another way to ensure people knew we care deeply about social justice for all. It wasn't enough for those staff."

Internal priorities are not the only complexity when it comes to ethical decision making. Many of the problems for-purpose businesses seek to solve are multifaceted, systemic issues. Organisations can find themselves in an existential crisis when the risk of harm to the business and/or individuals is such that they can not tackle a deep injustice or need despite there being an inarguable need for someone to do something. I saw this play out with a residential facility that was determined to take on a client with an acquired brain injury and a history of significant violence caused by it. The government had been housing him in a prison facility despite there being no charge because no one would take him, including government-run residential facilities. The organisation was determined that he be housed humanely. The business campaigned for him to be released and when it was clear there was nowhere for him to go began deliberating about whether they could house him. Internally the business was driven apart - some felt he had a fundamental human right to be housed humanely at any cost and others felt the money spent on housing him and keeping workers and the community safe, was too great given their resourcing and should be spent on improving the lives of many people rather than one.

The organisation's leadership landed on taking him on. They set up a house, they hired and trained additional staff, they ensured there was back up at all times and that there were mechanisms in place to reduce the risk to neighbours. They picked him up. He was back in the justice facility by the end of the day; he had assaulted and injured two staff and made the house unlivable by lunchtime. It was hugely devastating for all involved; those who had cared deeply about this man's humanity and those who had cared deeply about the staff and the opportunity cost his care represented to other clients.

So what can you do when you're faced with these kinds of dilemmas? It's important to start with the reality that when it comes to meeting people's values, you're unlikely to win over all of the people all of the time. And ethical decision-making is hard; I think when we work in these sectors we tend to assume because we are there for altruistic reasons then our decision making will be automatically ethically sound. In reality, we are programmed with an array of biases and personal shortcuts that means this is often not the case. Further, people by nature tend to a particular bent in their view of what is ethical - some lean to a rights-based approach, some are more utilitarian, others still take a virtue approach (and there are many more).

But there are ways around this complexity. There are some excellent resources on frameworks for ethical decision making. The Australian Public Service Commission has the REFLECT model, a version of which I have included below. Brown University provides an overview of ethical models and their framework for ethical decision making here (a long read, but a useful way to understand those who might have a different set of values to you) and of course, there are organisations like the Ethics Centre (no affiliation) that provide consulting services in this space (including Ethi-call, a free, independent, national helpline available to all).

If you can take the time to acknowledge and hear the concerns people have, and show a considered and ethically based decision-making process has been taken you are less likely to lose people along the way. They may not agree with the decision you make, but they are less likely to feel like it's a personal afront or that the business has lost its way. Below is a basic model and it requires a bit of vulnerability and a bit of bravery. But it might just help you hold your people along the way.

REcognise a potential issue or problem

Find relevant information

Linger at the ‘fork in the road’

Evaluate the options

Come to a decision

Take time to reflect

1. Recognise the issue:

  • Do I have a gut feeling that something is not right or that this is a risky situation?

  • Is this a right vs right or a right vs wrong issue?

  • Recognise the situation as one that involves tensions between the organisation's stated values and/or your personal values.

2. Find relevant information

  • What were the trigger and circumstances?

  • Identify the relevant legislation, company policies, and laws that provide boundaries to this decision making process.

  • Identify the rights and responsibilities of relevant stakeholders.

  • Identify any precedent decisions.

3. Linger or pause to consult supervisors, managers, respected colleagues, peers or support services (retain privacy)

  • Talk it through, use intuition (emotional intelligence and rational processes), analysis, listening and reflection.

4. Evaluate the options, identify consequences, look at processes to identify risks

  • Which action will produce the most good and do the least harm? (The Utilitarian Approach)

  • Which action respects the rights of all who have a stake in the decision? (The Rights Approach)

  • Which action treats people equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach)

  • Which action serves the community as a whole, not just some members?

  • (The Common Good Approach)

  • Which action leads me to act as the sort of person I should be? (The Virtue Approach)

Importantly (and this is me applying my own values here!) organisations with limited resources need to consider whether a course of action is something they have to do alone? And further, are you helping the broader system (government, private sector, etc) evade responsibility for this matter while putting your business and /or your clients at risk? If so, is there a better way?

5. Come to a decision, act on it, and make a record if necessary

6. Take time to reflect and review

  • How did it turn out for all concerned?

  • Learn from your decision.

  • If you had to do it all over again, would you do it differently?