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  This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


Most people generally know what the right thing to do is, and may even take decisions to act on this knowledge. However, due to numerous impediments, they fail to act in ways that mirror their honestly held commitments. This Module explores some of the practical strategies that can help implement ethical decisions. Its point of departure is a "post-decision making" stage or mind-set.

Practical strategies for ethical action can be broadly divided into two categories: those that apply on the organizational level and those that target the individual level. Organizational level approaches focus on creating environments in which individuals are encouraged to speak up without fear of retaliation. In the literature, this environment is also referred to as a just culture, a no-blame culture or a safe psychological environment. Many public and private sector organizations have started to embrace such an organizational culture in order to detect mistakes or unethical practices at the earliest possible opportunity and thus minimize damage. A no-blame culture not only promotes disclosure but it also enables the organization to learn and improve. By contrast, approaches on the individual level were developed to build the capacity of individuals to take ethical action even in difficult circumstances, including when the context or organizational culture are not conducive to ethical action. The individual-level approaches regard the capacity for ethical action as a "moral muscle" that can be trained and strengthened just like any muscle of the body. Both types of approaches are discussed in the following paragraphs and are demonstrated through the exercises of this Module. 


Organizational level: creating enabling environments

Research has shown that fear of consequences may keep individuals from speaking up when they make mistakes or detect unethical behaviour (Kish-Gephart et al., 2009). Fear not only originates from bad experiences but may also stem from understanding what might happen after a disclosure in terms of retaliation or punishment. This fear has implications for organizations. For example, Company A produces automobile parts for a new car model that just went into mass production. At some point, the production manager of Company A discovers that the automobile parts are faulty, due to an issue in the production process that he or she is responsible for. The production manager fears that revealing the issue may mean that he or she will be punished or fired and therefore decides not to speak up. After a few months, it is discovered that the automobile parts of Company A show potentially dangerous material fatigue. Thousands of cars must be recalled in order to exchange the faulty parts, causing additional costs to Company A and damaging its reputation. The ensuing investigation shows that the damage would have been limited and potential danger averted if only the fault had been discovered at an earlier stage.

While the essence of the example above applies to all kinds of organizations, some sectors have been particularly proactive in taking measures to encourage employees to speak up. Such sectors include the aviation industry, healthcare and the military. In some of these sectors, the need to learn from mistakes is essential as safety issues may lead to incidents or accidents with potentially disastrous consequences. To encourage employees to speak up, the concept of just culture has developed. This concept refers to an environment in which individuals are encouraged to learn from their mistakes rather than being punished.

This short article from the aviation organization Eurocontrol stresses the importance of a just culture in the aviation industry. It explains that punishing pilots with fines or a suspension of their licences can discourage them from reporting mistakes, with a consequent reduction in safety information. The article defines the concept of just culture as "a culture in which front-line operators and others are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them which are commensurate with their experience and training, but where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated".

As stressed by this definition, embracing a just culture does not mean that individuals are above the law: gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated in a just culture. However, organizational responses to mistakes should be driven by a desire to improve the culture for the future, not just identify and punish someone. In an organizational culture where occurrences are reported, investigations are conducted, and mitigating measures are administered (e.g. trainings, improved communication of rules and regulation, revision of processes) near misses will have a greater chance of coming to light than in other, more punitive organizational cultures.

The concept of just culture is also relevant to other safety-critical industries such as healthcare and the military. In the military, "after-action reviews" often follow missions and trainings to help soldiers learn from their mistakes and achievements. In the health sector, the concept has been defined as "a learning culture that is constantly improving and oriented toward patient safety" (Boysen, 2013). The relevance of a just culture in the healthcare industry is explained in this short video. Unfortunately, in many large healthcare institutions, blame cultures still exist with disastrous results. This news article refers to a recent example from the United Kingdom.

Similarly, the concept of a no-blame culture seeks to support employees that make mistakes in order to create an organizational culture that encourages problem-solving, transparency and high performance. If mistakes occur (rather than intentional violations), a root cause analysis is done to determine all contributing factors and the blame is most often put on the process rather than the individual employee. Thus, the organization can learn from mistakes and there is higher employee loyalty.

In addition, there is a growing body of research on speak-up culture and employee voice. In the literature, employee voice is defined as "informal and discretionary communication by an employee of ideas, suggestions, concerns, information about problems, or opinions about work-related issues to persons who might be able to take appropriate action, with the intent to bring about improvement or change" (Morrison, 2014). Organizations increasingly see the value of feedback as a means to find ways to improve, adapt and innovate. Asking for feedback is common in business-to-customer relationships (e.g. travel industry, online retail) and the same principle can be applied within companies or public sector organizations. Employees are also well placed to identify issues and provide critical feedback, but must feel that they will be listened to or they will not give feedback.

Measures that organizations can take to encourage speaking up are outlined in this handout that was developed by the Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Notre Dame, and made available on the ethicalsystems.org website. These measures include:

  • Proactively ask for feedback: Providing feedback should be an integral part of any evaluative process and organizations should proactively engage employees to solicit their feedback. It is important to follow up on the feedback received by showing what has been changed in response.
  • Lead by example: Being outspoken and highlighting both positive and negative examples demonstrates to employees that an organization wants to hear their feedback.
  • Provide regular feedback opportunities: Many organizations conduct formal annual appraisals. However, reviews and feedback opportunities should be ongoing, part of the regular communication process. Furthermore, organizations encourage communication and exchange across the hierarchy.
  • Protect employees from retaliation: The organization should have training to prevent retaliation from happening and a process to deal with cases of proven retaliation by current employees or supervisors against the person that has spoken up.

Through these methods, organizations can foster enabling environments for individuals to speak up and thereby counter the barriers to ethical behaviour that are discussed in depth in Modules 6 and 8. However, what practical strategies can individuals adopt to help them act ethically in challenging circumstances? This question is explored in more detail in the following discussion.


The individual level: building skills for ethical action

While ethical action should be supported and encouraged by the organizational culture, it also has much to do with strategies on the individual level. Research and practical experience indicate that most of us want to act ethically and also know what the right thing to do is. Nevertheless, it can be very difficult to follow through and voice concerns. Research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics suggests that individuals can handle ethically compromised situations more effectively when they are prepared and trained do to so. The notion that ethical action is something that can be learned and perfected through practice has informed several approaches to ethics education, including experiential learning methods that place learners in real-life ethical dilemmas and encourage them to devise solutions. These methods are employed, for example, by universities that encourage students to participate in legal clinics with ethical dimensions, or organizations that conduct action-based ethical training programmes (see discussion below). Another set of methods for enhancing individual ethical action is associated with the "Giving Voice to Values" pedagogical approach (Gentile, 2010).

Giving Voice to Values (GVV)

What distinguishes the GVV approach from traditional ethics education programmes is that it does not delve into the question of what is right or wrong, but rather focuses on the 'post-decision making' stage. Its point of departure is a 'model decision' of how the situation should be handled, and students are asked to practice and rehearse the eventual action they would take to implement that model decision. As explained in further detail below, and illustrated through the Exercises of this Module, GVV proposes several practices and rehearsal techniques such as pre-scripting (writing down a plan for what one would do if X happens) and peer-coaching (a group of participants work together to craft effective responses). GVV synthesizes insights from different studies and disciplines to provide practical guidance on how to take ethical action more effectively. This approach has been introduced in universities across the world and in various organizations as a means to implement integrity and ethics in practice.

Research and interviews reveal that there are many ways to voice values: looking for a win/win solution; changing the supervisor's mind through persuasion and logic; going over the supervisor's head within the organization; building coalitions of like-minded employees; and so on. However, the pivotal moment is deciding to speak. According to Gentile, the following actions help to voice values:

  • Reduce stress by realizing that ethical dilemmas occur in any job and are normal and even predictable.
  • Treat ethical conflicts just like any other business issue, enabling the individual to tap into the same skills and strengths that serve them well in those situations.
  • Develop a strong business case, gathering convincing arguments and figuring out whom to talk to - just like for any other business issue.
  • Recognize common pitfalls such as rationalizations and reflect in advance on effective ways to re-frame and counter these pitfalls (some of these pitfalls are discussed in Integrity and Ethics Module 6 (Challenges to Ethical Living)).
  • Increase the effectiveness and the likelihood of taking ethical action by pre-scripting what to say and how to proceed in the matter.
  • In many cases, it is also helpful to get some form of peer-coaching.
  • Take advantage of psychological biases of listeners by framing the issue in the way that is most relevant for the audience.

According to Gentile, rehearsing and practicing are helpful in the process of voicing values. Practice and rehearsal techniques such as pre-scripting may increase the chances of taking ethical action when it is most needed, and doing so effectively. Another practical approach is peer coaching where the aim is to test arguments with a set of colleagues (see Exercise 3 of this Module). Peer coaching can be used when seeking the support of groups from both inside and outside the organization. It may even help to find new ways of expressing values that would not have come up otherwise. Peer coaching differs from role-playing in a significant aspect: In role-playing, there is often an implicit adversarial relationship between the individuals in each role. In other words, the person who plays the role of the listener will tend to see it as his or her job to resist or find flaws in the speaker's presentation. Peer coaching, on the other hand, seeks to create an atmosphere in which a group of participants work together to craft effective responses.

In resolving ethical dilemmas, it is important to be skillful, prepared and competent. In other words, there is no need to preach, just because ethical questions are addressed. Communication challenges that may arise when trying to solve ethical dilemmas can be approached with the same analytical and personal capabilities that would be used in any other situation, whether it is convincing a professor to give an extension on a final paper or negotiating a work contract. As with other communication challenges, needs and desires of the audience must be considered. Re-framing "voice" as "dialogue", which includes active listening, is another important ingredient in the recipe.

It should be stressed that there are many ways to voice values, and each individual may wish to use the communication style with which he or she is most skilled at and comfortable with. For example, if a certain person is most comfortable and effective when communicating by using metaphors and story-telling, then he or she may wish to play to these strengths by using metaphors and story-telling when voicing values. Even if certain personal communication techniques may not seem to be the most obvious choices in some situations (e.g. using metaphors may seem inappropriate in certain work environments), one can still have success when voicing values through using metaphors as this communication technique would come natural at a time of stress.

In order to take ethical action, communicating powerfully and persuasively in the face of strong countervailing organizational or individual norms, reasons and rationalizations, can be crucial. Drawing on successful examples and personal conviction can help to overcome common pitfalls. To develop this ability, it is useful to analyse the challenging situation carefully by answering the following questions:

  • Who is the critical audience(s) or the key parties of the ethical dilemma? What is at stake for them?
  • What are the main arguments that must be countered? What are the reasons and rationalizations that need to be addressed?
  • How can those who actively or passively engage in unethical behaviour be influenced?
  • What is the most powerful and persuasive response to the reasons and rationalizations that need to be addressed? To whom should the argument be made? When and in what context?

Additional guiding questions that can help in designing, reflecting upon and discussing responses to ethically challenging situations are as follows:

  • What is the optimal timing for your effort? Should it be broken down into stages in some way? Sequenced?
  • Will you do this solo? With allies? (If yes, whom?)
  • Will you do this off-line or in public? One-on-one or in a group?
  • Do you have all the information you need (research, interpersonal insights, examples of past successes or failures, etc.)?
  • Do you have adequate sources of support, inside and/or outside the organization? You might brainstorm all the possible sources of support and what you think each of them may be best able to provide. For example, peers within the organization may have information and can confirm or disprove your data.
  • Family members may be able to place the choice into a larger perspective, regarding your deepest values and your personal identity. It may also be helpful to discuss your situation with close family, as a way of engaging them in the process with you so that you are not on this journey alone, particularly when the risks may affect them as well. Otherwise, fear of admitting the risks to those close to us can hinder our sense of free decision-making.
  • Given your own self-assessment of your typical reactions and/or blind spots, have you insured that you have consulted advisors who are best suited to raise what you are likely to miss?
  • How would you describe the approach you take in your proposed response?
    • A learning stance: open-minded (e.g., "Help me to understand how you are thinking about this…")
    • Dialogue (e.g., "Can we keep this decision open for a while longer, so that we can consider other perspectives?")
    • Persuasion: You are convinced of your position but want to persuade the other (e.g., "I have done a lot of thinking about this situation and I have concluded… I would really appreciate the opportunity to share my perspective with you")
    • Adversarial: You are convinced of your position and your goal is to simply state your position and let the chips fall where they may (e.g., "I have done a lot of thinking about this situation and I have concluded…I am sorry if you disagree but I cannot pursue this course of action")
    • One-size-fits-all arguments, or somehow tailored for audience(s) (e.g., "It's not honest" is a one size fits all argument whereas "Our firm's reputation for honesty is its greatest asset. Remember how our customers stood by us when we discovered that data theft last year? That was because they believed we would never deceive them about their risks" is an example of a more tailored argument. Both can be effective in different situations, but it is best to be aware of our choices)
    • Problem-solving (e.g., "I see what's at stake here and why you are suggesting this course of action, but I am confident we can find another solution if we bring all our talents to bear here.")
    • Other approaches?
  • What are the biggest challenges/thorniest arguments you face?
  • What are your strongest arguments?
  • What will it take to do this?
    • For your target listener: How will you need to frame this choice to tap into his/her commitment?
    • For yourself: How will you need to frame this choice to tap into your own commitment and courage?

These questions become the template for discussing, pre-scripting and action-planning around the case studies and scenarios shared in the Exercises section of this Module. Interestingly, these questions are not asking to apply ethical analysis. Rather they are about understanding the reasons and motivations that guide the behaviour and choices of those who need to be persuaded. For more explanations about the GVV approach, please see Mary Gentile's interviews here and here.

Experiential learning or problem-solving approaches

Building skills for taking ethical action can be achieved through an experiential learning approach. Also known as experience-based learning or action learning, experiential learning refers to a process that leads to an increase in knowledge based on concrete experience and reflective observation. When discussed in the context of ethics education, this basic idea of experiential learning is that individuals or groups experience a real-life ethical dilemma and try to devise solutions. They learn from reflecting on the process and results, and from experiencing the problem and seeking the solution.

Experiential learning is the foundation of many problem-solving or action-oriented ethical training programmes including those implemented by organizations such as Integrity Action and the Alliance for Integrity. Integrity Action is an international NGO that focuses on initiating social processes that curb corruption and empower citizens to act with and demand integrity. In the context of its Community Integrity Building project, the NGO encourages students and other participants to monitor public projects and speak up when noticing improper or unethical practices. This has yielded positive results in terms of improving the quality and ethicality of services. Integrity Action discusses the project and its results in this publication.

The Alliance for Integrity, according to its website, is a business-driven multi-stakeholder initiative seeking to promote transparency and integrity in the economic system. The organization has a variety of projects including integrity trainings based on experiential learning. For example, its programme for business practitioners called De Empresas para Empresas ('From Businesses for Businesses') includes the following four steps:

  • First, participants work in groups on ethical dilemma situations that they encounter in day-to-day business (concrete experience).
  • Second, participants present their potential solutions in a joint discussion with all the participants of the training programme (reflective observation).
  • Third, good practice solutions are shared with the participants, considering contextual factors (abstractive conceptualizations).
  • Fourth, participants practice the solutions that have been proposed in further exercises and are encouraged to apply their knowledge in day-to-day business and report back or share their experience in working groups.

Depending on their knowledge and experience, participants can become trainers for their peers. Experience shows that this peer-coaching element benefits both training participants and trainers.

University clinical education

As noted earlier, universities can encourage their students to take ethical action through experiential learning programmes such as legal clinics. Although law and ethics are two separate concepts, they are closely related as discussed in depth in E4J Integrity and Ethics Module 12 (Integrity, Ethics and Law). This close connection is especially apparent in certain areas such as anti-corruption law. Non-ethical behaviour often leads to corrupt conduct, and the mechanisms for protecting individuals who speak up against unethical or corrupt practices are similar. Such clinics provide a friendly environment where potential clients, including corruption victims and witnesses, can receive free legal aid or advice from students about the legality of actions and the availability of protections against retaliation. The aid or advice is usually provided pro bono, but the students participating in the clinic must still respect attorney-client privileges. Therefore, an anti-corruption legal clinic can serve as a law school programme where students learn how to identify and evaluate potentially unethical conduct of others, and advise on legal implications and possible remedial action (Whalen-Bridge, 2017).

Students participating in the clinics practice ethical action through their involvement in actual cases with ethical dimensions. The work can also improve their peer coaching skills. At the same time, legal clinics can be beneficial for the society as a whole. Students participating in legal clinics are future legal professionals. The experience they receive in the clinic will often be transposed into their future activities, as advocates for change or individual attorneys. Furthermore, as part of an attempt to foster an ethical culture and to build capacities for disclosing information related to non-ethical behaviour, public and private organizations can encourage employees to share ethical issues and dilemmas with anti-corruption university legal clinics.

In addition, organizations can collaborate with legal clinics on organizing trainings for employees, focusing for example on protections from repercussions (this may include whistle-blower protection but also other forms of protection deriving from labour law). Through such trainings, clinic students can convey to employees that protection is not only a matter of their organization's approach but is also a legal requirement. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood that ethically compromising situations will be discussed.

Another example relates to the issue of speak-up culture and employee feedback. Students who are involved in legal clinics can draft and publish a template for questionnaires on the clinic's website regarding the level of satisfaction regarding the superiors' conduct, inter-company relations, the perceived freedom to express one's attitude, the types of penalties for disciplinary breaches, the actual possibilities for a person to point out his or her opinion, the effects of this on work processes, and suggestions for improvement. Organizations can in turn access and adapt these templates to their own needs and use them as monitoring tools or as a basis for undertaking initiatives.

Anti-corruption legal clinics can also educate students who are not enrolled in the clinical programme. Thus, if a student from a certain university has concerns over unethical practices but does not know whether to disclose information, the student can consult the university's anti-corruption legal clinic. By discussing the matters with peers, the student can learn whether the unethical behaviour amounts to corruption from a legal perspective, and what are the protective mechanisms that would apply if he or she speaks up. For students, but also for other types of clients, legal clinics represent a friendly environment where issues are openly discussed and feedback is received from supportive students and peers.

To conclude, as illustrated in this Module, certain practical strategies can help implement ethical decisions. Some of these strategies apply on the organizational level, focusing on creating enabling environments. Other strategies target the individual level, seeking to build personal capacity to take ethical action even in difficult circumstances, including when the context or organizational culture are not conducive to ethical action. Through its explanations and interactive exercise, this Module familiarises students with both types of strategies.   




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