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  • Making Better Ethical Decisions
  • Herbert Snyder (bio)

Making ethical choices is an integral duty in a civil society and an essential responsibility of a good organizational citizen. There are numerous codes of conduct to assist in making these decisions, including religious texts, laws, and professional codes. These various sets of rules can provide useful guides for the range of ethical choices that we continually face. Unfortunately, while these structures assist us in better understanding what a correct ethical decision is, they often provide little help for actually carrying one out.

For those who work in academia, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the decisions we make there are trivial. Sayre’s law, named for the political scientist Wallace Sayre, famously characterizes academic disputes as “the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”1 We might question whether academic disputes are more vicious than those in any other workplace, but we cannot doubt that the ethical decisions we make in academia are as important as the choices made in any profession, except those that deal with life and death.

Imagine yourself as a mid-level administrator in a university library in one of the following situations:

Your office employs a clerk from a temp agency who is not particularly good at his job. Although he is not lazy or purposely careless, he files very slowly and sometime misplaces documents. His mistakes irritate your supervisor, who complains to you about the clerk’s performance. Over time, these complaints become more frequent and more barbed. It also becomes clear that the supervisor is purposely making remarks the clerk can hear. Worse, they now range beyond work to criticizing his intelligence and hygiene. You mention this behavior to a coworker, who advises you to ignore it: “He’s only a temp. No point in becoming the target yourself.”

Your job does not normally involve review of purchases, but several file folders were mistakenly placed with the performance appraisals of employees who report to you. Curious, you examine the folders and realize that several thousand dollars seem to have been spent on materials you have never seen in the library. You bring this to the director’s attention; she tells it is not part of your job and that continuing to pursue the matter will be treated as insubordination.

A graduate student who works for you says that she spent the last semester reading and researching historical documents as part of seminar taught by a well-regarded faculty [End Page 457] member. Her research uncovered an interesting and previously unknown connection between several historical events, which she wrote up and turned in as one of the seminar’s assignments. Months later, she read an article written by the faculty member who taught the seminar, only to find large parts of her essay included verbatim and without attribution. She is upset at the possible academic dishonesty but also worried that she will be unable to complete her dissertation if she complains.

While all these examples are hypothetical, a brief Google search will yield an appallingly large number of similar cases across campuses nationwide, proving that such problem situations are becoming the rule rather than the exception. The difficulty that most people face, however, is not deciding whether such behavior is unethical. Most of us would agree that the proper decision in such dilemmas—finding a way to stop the behaviors and assist the victims—is very clear. What also is clear is that making the ethical choice might be costly, inviting disapproval from colleagues, disciplinary action, or, in some cases, termination. However, situations like these hypothetical cases have a habit of coming to light, and when they do, the consequences of having known about them but done nothing are even more costly.

That said, in numerous cases professionals in similar situations have turned a blind eye on unethical behavior with the knowledge that doing so would be detrimental to the organization or to their careers. Why, then, do people so often do the wrong thing, and how can we help ourselves and our colleagues avoid unethical decisions?

Stress and Decision-Making

The tendency to make poor...


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pp. 457-463
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