"What Should I Do?"

Twelve Key Questions to Ask for
Making Ethical Business Decisions

by Joel Saltzman


It's easy to follow the rules. (Assuming you know what they are.) But "What are the rules?" for making ethical business decisions? And can you follow them?

For example, it's one thing to say, I don't lie to customers. Yet, when faced with a business decision that's worth a fair amount of money, the thought of making that money (or losing that money) can sometimes cloud our moral judgment.

What's needed is a practical set of guidelines - not only to steer us from unethical actions, but to guide us toward more positive business behavior. That said, consider the following Twelve Key Questions to Ask as a solid foundation on which to build sound, ethical, business decisions.

(Please Note: Some of these questions may seem to overlap. You may even feel, Haven't I already answered that? Rest assured, the "repetition" is by design. By examining certain questions in slightly different ways, it ensures they get the attention they deserve.

1. Should I stop and think things over?

Yes. 99% of the time, an ethical business dilemma - as opposed to, say, Should I steal this pen now that he has his back turned? - does not need to be solved on the spot. If you do make a knee jerk decision - and it proves to be the wrong one - you're the one who winds up the jerk. As a rule, STOP. Give yourself the time you need to think things over. The expression, "Let me get back to you on that" will often save you from needless heartache.

2. Does my proposed behavior pass the Creative Thinker Test?

Often, ethical quandaries can be solved by looking beyond standard "either/or" thinking. In fact, the moment you find yourself thinking, Either I do X, or I do , STOP. Ask yourself:

What are some OTHER ways to solve this problem?

The more alternatives you have to solving that problem, the better your chances of finding an elegant, ethical solution.

Imagine that a prospective customer wants to place a large order for manufactured goods with your company - contingent on those goods being delivered in 14 days. Problem is, you're less than certain your supplier of those goods can make the date. Do you tell your buyer the truth - and possibly risk blowing the deal - or make him a promise you may not be able to keep?

Anyway, it's not really lying. I'm just promising a delivery date I'm not sure we can make. And maybe I can deliver the goods the goods on time. I just don't know right now! Besides, if I don't fudge on the delivery date, maybe someone else will and he'll get the order! And another thing: These guys who want to place the order? They've never once paid us on time!

Instead of trying to fight, or rationalize, your way out of some "either/or" box (Either I take the deal or I don't.), Consider, instead, creating Option 3, Option 4, and so on.

For example (Option 3) you could pay extra - perhaps a LOT extra - for expedited shipping from your supplier, guaranteeing you'll make the required delivery date. True, this could eat significantly into your profit - unless you could get the buyer to assume the additional cost (Option 4) or get him, at least, to assume part of the cost (Option 5). Meanwhile Options 3, 4 and 5 could save you the risk of losing future business from your buyer. Meanwhile, you'll be reducing your original "ethical problem" to "No problem at all!"

Clearly, many ethical dilemmas are more challenging to solve. But the lesson remains: The moment you find yourself thinking, Either I do X, or I do Y, STOP. Ask yourself:

What are some OTHER ways to solve this problem?

(For more complex challenges - with equally simple solutions - see Six Top Tips to Shake That ETHICS Brain!)

3. How would I feel if someone treated ME this way?

The Golden Rule: If you'd feel hurt, cheated, lied to, taken advantage of, under-appreciated, abused or treated unfairly, DON'T take the action. If you'd feel unfairly deprived of freedom or opportunity, DON'T take the action.

Instead, look to "do the right thing" by only taking action when your behavior will be fair, honest and respectful of others.

4. Am I keeping my word?

The issue is integrity: Are you and your company keeping your word, or failing to honor your commitment -- to a handshake deal, an offer of employment, or some other obligation? This includes "keeping your word" to pay for goods and services -- even if you never received a bill (or received a bill for a lower amount than you actually owe).

Pop Quiz: What do you call someone who doesn't keep their word?
Answer? A liar. (Not very pretty, but dead bang accurate.)

5. Is it legal?

If it's not legal, it's not ethical, not according to the laws of our land. Are there exceptions? Most definitely. (An illegal protest, perhaps.) But for the overwhelming majority of everyday ethical business dilemmas the answer is clear: If it's not legal, it's not ethical. Period.

If it is legal, you're still not out of the ethical woods. While it's a "legal" requirement to comply with laws and regulations, one could argue that there's often an "ethical" requirement" to do more than the law requires. Lockheed Martin, for example, writes in its Ethics and Business Conduct Statement that it aims to "do more than comply with laws and regulations. We aim to do what is right."

Conversely, you may have the legal right or authority to do something - like sue teenagers for posting music files on the web - but a sense of fair play may encourage you to demonstrate restraint. (As former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it: "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is the right thing to do.")

An ethical person, it's been said, often chooses to do "more than the law requires and less than the law allows."

6. Where can I turn for sound advice?

Does your industry have a set of ethical guidelines you can consult? Does your company have a Code of Ethics document? If the answer is Yes to either of these questions, you may have have all the guidance you need. (Or at least a solid start.)

Is there a supervisor, minister or rabbi you can turn to - someone who can offer you guidance and support without betraying your trust?

7. Does it pass the "Anything Up Anyone's Sleeve?" Test?

Anything up MY sleeve?

If you were on the other side of the table, is there anything else you'd want to know that might negatively impact your decision to go ahead -- either through omission (failing to reveal an important fact) or misrepresentation (a fancy word for "lying.") For example, if you were trading a pitcher, would the other team want to know about the fracture in his wrist? If you were selling a house, would the prospective buyer want to know about that crack in the foundation? And if you weren't sure you could make that delivery date, would your buyer want to know?

Anything up HIS sleeve?

Are you considering doing business with someone whose ethical standards you suspect are lacking? If the answer is yes, trust your gut. Remember: He that lies with the dogs, riseth with the fleas.

8. Does it pass the "What Works Best?" Tests?

Short-term vs. Long-term

Are you thinking about "cutting a corner" (either legally or ethically) to make a quick buck? If you are, what you are doing is focusing on a short-term gain at the expense of your company's future.

Think of short-term, "cutting corners" actions as being ethically near-sighted.
They are the product of a company lacking "vision." In the long run, companies behaving ethically will increase, not decrease, their fiscal success.

What works best? Placing long-term goals over short-term gains.

Loyalty vs. Truth

Are you placing loyalty (to your boss, coworkers or your company) over telling or revealing the truth? Or do you side with Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who "blew the whistle" on the FBI regarding what she perceived to be the agency's mishandling (pre-9/11) of information relating to the attacks.

What works best? Placing truth above loyalty. Even if your loyalty is to the FBI.

Self vs. Community

Whether you're playing your stereo too loud or cluttering the sidewalk with overspill from your store, you're placing needs of self over community needs.

What works best? Placing the needs of the community above the needs of one individual.

This test, in fact, has a lot in common with Loyalty vs. Truth. Are you guided by feelings of loyalty (serving your inner-circle)? Or do you elect to tell the truth and thereby serve a larger circle? (In the case of Agent Rowley, the United States.)

Justice vs. Mercy

In the 60's, "righteous indignation" was a popular expression - allowing, quite often, people to scream their heads off at the offending party. You may have a "right to sing the blues" but you don't have a right - at least not an ethical one - to scream at someone or needlessly hurt their feelings just because you happen to be "right" (according to you, at least).

As for your "legal" rights, remember than an ethical person often chooses to do less than the law allows. The law allows you, for example, to serve on summons on someone who's in the hospital with a serious illness - even on Christmas Eve.
But is it, you may ask, the "right" thing to do?

(Meanwhile, be careful not to use the concept of justice -- for example, "telling the truth" -- as license to hurt someone's feelings. When criticizing a worker, for example, remember to focus on a principle, like tardiness, rather than on the person. This is the difference between "We expect everyone to show up on time" and "Jane, you ignorant slacker!")

What works best? Choosing mercy over justice.

9. Does it pass the Mummy, Tummy and Headline Test?

If your mother found out what you planned to do, would she approve or give you a scolding? (This assumes, of course, your mother is not "Ma" Barker.)

How about the Queasy Feeling, Nervous Tummy, Can't Really Sleep Test? If your nerves are so jangled you lose one or more nights of sleep, consider your unrest a Warning Bell of the highest order. Finally, if the action you're considering appeared as the headline in tomorrow's paper - BOB SMITH DOES X! - would it make you feel proud, or downright ashamed? (Note: Behaving "ethically" also includes refraining from an activity that would give the appearance of impropriety -- like a $187.5 million retirement package from the New York Stock Exchange.)

10. Would my action (or inaction) align with community standards, or risk doing harm to my business or community?

Consider, as well, how you would help or harm your business or community's IMAGE or INTEGRITY.

11. Would my action (or inaction) improve or diminish the health, safety or well-being of my workers, business or community?

Again, here's an opportunity to think CREATIVELY, not EXPENSIVELY. For example, a bumper stick that reads: "How am I driving?" You'll be protecting your business as well as the safety and well-being of your workers, business and community. Pretty good value for less than a buck. (Now what ELSE can you do?)

12. If my business has an impact BEYOND my community, is it positive or negative?

While you may be offering a great cappuccino in Los Angeles or a trendy pair of sneakers in New York, consider your effect on the rest of the world. Are you polluting rivers far from home, employing Third World children at lowly pay in unsafe conditions, or otherwise mistreating people or the planet? If the answer is Yes, think what can you do to make it Not anymore.

If you damage or remove natural resources, for example, what can you do to replace or replenish them? Think of forest replanting measures ... or the Boy Scout practice of leaving a campsite CLEANER than you found it.

If you DON'T cause a negative impact, you may still want to ask yourself, How can I contribute to make a POSITIVE impact? Starbucks trumpets their commitment to "ecologically sound growing practices that help protect biodiversity and provide economic opportunities for small-scale coffee farmers." Timberland runs advertisements against racism, and ads for Benetton's colorful clothes stress the importance of ethnic (or "color") tolerance.

Now ask yourself this: Do you have warm, positive feelings for Starbucks, Timberland or Benetton that may "positively impact" your decision to be their customer?

Bonus Question:

What if EVERYONE did it?

Often, this simple question can help to turn someone around 180-degrees. From What's the big deal? to That WOULD be a big deal!


These basic Questions - if asked and considered with the care they deserve - will consistently point your business in the right ethical direction.


For a 2-page version of this article, see: 12 Key Questions [Abridged]

For a companion articles, see: 6 Top Tips to Shake That ETHICS Brain!
and Writing a Code of Ethics for Your Business.

Extra Credit: Play Bell South's Ethics Game!


Joel Saltzman is a speaker, facilitator and consultant who teaches people in business to
Shake That Brain! and discover solutions for maximum profit.
Most recently, he's the author of "Shake That Brain!" (Wiley, 2006).
877-Shake It! (877-742-5348)