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The PLUS Ethical Decision Making Model

Seven Steps to Ethical Decision Making
Step 1: Define the problem (consult PLUS filters)
Step 2: Seek out relevant assistance, guidance and support 
Step 3: Identify alternatives
Step 4: Evaluate the alternatives (consult PLUS filters)
Step 5: Make the decision
Step 6: Implement the decision
Step 7: Evaluate the decision (consult PLUS filters)

Organizations struggle to develop a simple set of guidelines that makes it easier for individual employees, regardless of position or level, to be confident that his/her decisions meet all of the competing standards for effective and ethical decision-making used by the organization. Such a model must take into account two realities:

  • Every employee is called upon to make decisions in the normal course of doing his/her job. Organizations cannot function effectively if employees are not empowered to make decisions consistent with their positions and responsibilities.
  • For the decision maker to be confident in the decision's soundness, every decision should be tested against the organization's policies and values, applicable laws and regulations as well as the individual employee's definition of what is right, fair, good and acceptable.

The decision making process described below has been carefully constructed to be:

  • Fundamentally sound based on current theories and understandings of both decision-making processes and ethics.
  • Simple and straightforward enough to be easily integrated into every employee's thought processes.
  • Descriptive (detailing how ethical decision are made naturally) rather than prescriptive (defining unnatural ways of making choices).

Why do organizations need ethical decision making? See our special edition case study, #RespectAtWork, to find out.

Step 1: Define the problem
The most significant step in any decision-making process is to determine why a decision is called for and identify the desired outcome(s). How you define a problem shapes your understanding of its causes and where you will search for solutions.

First, explore the difference between what you expect and/or desire and the current reality. By defining the problem in terms of outcomes, you can clearly state the problem.

Consider this example: Tenants at an older office building are complaining that their employees are getting angry and frustrated because there is always a long delay getting an elevator to the lobby at rush hour. Many possible solutions exist, and all are predicated on a particular understanding the problem:

  • Flexible hours - so all the tenants' employees are not at the elevators at the same time.
  • Faster elevators - so each elevator can carry more people in a given time period.
  • Bigger elevators - so each elevator can carry more people per trip.
  • Elevator banks - so each elevator only stops on certain floors, increasing efficiency.
  • Better elevator controls - so each elevator is used more efficiently.
  • More elevators - so that overall carrying capacity can be increased.
  • Improved elevator maintenance - so each elevator is more efficient.
  • Encourage employees to use the stairs - so fewer people use the elevators.

The real-life decision makers defined the problem as "people complaining about having to wait." Their solution was to make the wait less frustrating by piping music into the elevator lobbies. The complaints stopped. There is no way that the eventual solution could have been reached if, for example, the problem had been defined as "too few elevators."

How you define the problem determines where you go to look for alternatives/solutions-- so define the problem carefully.

Step 2: Seek out relevant assistance, guidance and support

Once the problem is defined, it is critical to search out resources that may be of assistance in making the decision. Resources can include people (i.e., a mentor, coworkers, external colleagues, or friends and family) as well professional guidelines and organizational policies and codes. Such resources are critical for determining parameters, generating solutions, clarifying priorities and providing support, both while implementing the solution and dealing with the repercussions of the solution.

Step 3: Identify available alternative solutions to the problem
The key to this step is to not limit yourself to obvious alternatives or merely what has worked in the past. Be open to new and better alternatives. Consider as many as solutions as possible -- five or more in most cases, three at the barest minimum. This gets away from the trap of seeing "both sides of the situation" and limiting one's alternatives to two opposing choices (i.e., either this or that).

Step 4: Evaluate the identified alternatives
As you evaluate each alternative, identify the likely positive and negative consequence of each. It is unusual to find one alternative that would completely resolve the problem and is significantly better than all others. As you consider positive and negative consequences, you must be careful to differentiate between what you know for a fact and what you believe might be the case. Consulting resources, including written guidelines and standards, can help you ascertain which consequences are of greater (and lesser) import.

You should think through not just what results each alternative could yield, but the likelihood it is that such impact will occur. You will only have all the facts in simple cases. It is reasonable and usually even necessary to supplement the facts you have with realistic assumptions and informed beliefs. Nonetheless, keep in mind that the more the evaluation is fact-based, the more confident you can be that the expected outcome will occur. Knowing the ratio of fact-based evaluation versus non-fact-based evaluation allows you to gauge how confident you can be in the proposed impact of each alternative.

Step 5: Make the decision
When acting alone, this is the natural next step after selecting the best alternative. When you are working in a team environment, this is where a proposal is made to the team, complete with a clear definition of the problem, a clear list of the alternatives that were considered and a clear rationale for the proposed solution.

Step 6: Implement the decision
While this might seem obvious, it is necessary to make the point that deciding on the best alternative is not the same as doing something. The action itself is the first real, tangible step in changing the situation. It is not enough to think about it or talk about it or even decide to do it. A decision only counts when it is implemented. As Lou Gerstner (former CEO of IBM) said, "There are no more prizes for predicting rain. There are only prizes for building arks."

Step 7: Evaluate the decision
Every decision is intended to fix a problem. The final test of any decision is whether or not the problem was fixed. Did it go away? Did it change appreciably? Is it better now, or worse, or the same? What new problems did the solution create?

Ethics Filters

The ethical component of the decision making process takes the form of a set of "filters." Their purpose is to surface the ethics considerations and implications of the decision at hand. When decisions are classified as being "business" decisions (rather than "ethics" issues), values can quickly be left out of consideration and ethical lapses can occur.

At key steps in the process, you should stop and work through these filters, ensuring that the ethics issues imbedded in the decision are given consideration.

We group the considerations into the mnemonic PLUS.

  • P = Policies
    Is it consistent with my organization's policies, procedures and guidelines?
  • L= Legal
    Is it acceptable under the applicable laws and regulations?
  • U = Universal
    Does it conform to the universal principles/values my organization has adopted?
  • S= Self
    Does it satisfy my personal definition of right, good and fair?

The PLUS filters work as an integral part of steps 1, 4 and 7 of the decision-making process. The decision maker applies the four PLUS filters to determine if the ethical component(s) of the decision are being surfaced/addressed/satisfied.

  • Step 1: Define the problem (use PLUS to surface the ethics issues)
      • Does the existing situation violate any of the PLUS considerations?
  • Step 2: Seek out relevant assistance, guidance and support
  • Step 3: Identify available alternative solutions to the problem
  • Step 4: Evaluate the identified alternatives (use PLUS to assess their ethical impact)
      • Will the alternative I am considering resolve the PLUS violations?
      • Will the alternative being considered create any new PLUS considerations?
      • Are the ethical trade-offs acceptable?
  • Step 5: Make the decision
  • Step 6: Implement the decision
  • Step 7: Evaluate the decision (PLUS surface any remaining/new ethics issues)
      • Does the resultant situation resolve the earlier PLUS considerations?
      • Are there any new PLUS considerations to be addressed?

The PLUS filters do not guarantee an ethically-sound decision. They merely ensure that the ethics components of the situation will be surfaced so that they might be considered.

How Organizations Can Support Ethical Decision-Making 
Organizations empower employees with the knowledge and tools they need to make ethical decisions by

  • Intentionally and regularly communicating to all employees:
  • Organizational policies and procedures as they apply to the common workplace ethics issues.
  • Applicable laws and regulations.
  • Agreed-upon set of "universal" values (i.e., Empathy, Patience, Integrity, Courage [EPIC]).
  • Providing a formal mechanism (i.e., a code and a helpline, giving employees access to a definitive interpretation of the policies, laws and universal values when they need additional guidance before making a decision).