Six Top Tips to
Shake That ETHICS Brain!
by Joel Saltzman


Your boss informs you that one of two workers you supervise has to be let go. Times are tough and his decision is final: Who to let go is up to you. Both workers do the same job, are equally skilled and draw the same pay. Their seniority and attendance records are also the same.

This is what's called an ethical dilemma - how to decide What's the right thing to do?

But first, another problem …

In seminars on leadership and decision making, there's a popular precursor to TV's Survivor - that old chestnut, the "lifeboat exercise." (If you know it, stick with me. The solution will surprise you.)

In the exercise, students are asked to imagine that a ship is sinking and that the lifeboat isn't big enough to accommodate all the survivors. Heavy winds and waves threaten to sink the lifeboat as well. Given thumbnail descriptions of the motley crew, students are asked: "Which survivors should be thrown overboard?" Should it be the mentally disturbed one-armed man who carries government secrets in his head? Or the prostitute who's also an excellent nurse? And so on.

Chances are you'll never find yourself in quite the same situation. But the exercise serves as a great teaching example. In fact, the most ethical decision can only be discovered if you're daring enough to question assumptions.


In 1943, the S.S. Deer Lodge was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Seas were rough and winds were heavy. Men were sick, injured, and the too-small lifeboat was in danger of sinking. With little discussion and no debate, here's what they did:

While the stronger men stayed on board to bail, others took turns going over the side, hanging on to the gunwales as their only support. In the end, every crewman was saved.

What the crewmen decided - right from the start! - was the opposite of our classroom assumption. Instead of thinking, SOMEONE has to go ... their assumption was NO ONE has to go!

Bob Morrison, son of one of the crewmen (Leslie Morrison, 1910 - 1998) says his father explained that: "The sick men were cared for, never neglected or resented. And no one dreamed of throwing them overboard …Without being self-righteous, Pop always communicated to us the importance of doing the right thing." [1]

Now let's return to that opening problem:

Your boss informs you that one of two workers you supervise has to be let go. Times are tough and his decision is final. Both workers do the same job, are equally skilled and draw the same pay. Their seniority and attendance records are also the same. To make matters worse…

Who to "throw overboard" is up to you. Your question is clear:

Who do I fire?

Who do I fire!?, you say to yourself. I don't want to fire anyone! The trick is to stop, to say to yourself, There's got to be a better way!

Searching for a better way, you ask yourself an "opposite" question. Instead of just asking: Who do I fire?... YOU ask yourself:

Who do I HIRE?

At first, the question makes no sense. We're trying to save money, not SPEND more money! But you hang in there, trying to figure out, How COULD this question makes sense after all?

A moment later, you've got it: Who do we HIRE to turn business around!

Is my boss's decision really final, or could he be persuaded to keep both men while we hire someone new to bring in more business!

That's what's called "questioning your assumptions," asking, for example: Is there some way to make sure NO ONE gets fired? And if it turns out you CAN'T hire someone…

What if both workers agreed to work part time? (At least until business picked up again.)

What if I spoke with my workers and discovered that one of them was thinking of quitting anyway?

Do I know someone who could hire one of them?

Remember: Faced with an ethical problem be sure to question every assumption you've made: Is that really so? Does it have to be that way? How could it be some other way? Maybe, in fact... NO ONE has to go!

Finally -- as promised! -- here are "Six Top Tips to Shake That Ethics Brain!" When faced with an ethical challenge, use these tips to help you discover elegant, ethical, inventive solutions.


Know that it may take some time, but eventually you'll discover one or more solutions - maybe even some extraordinary ones.


Write down your problem in the form of a clear, precise question. And always pose your question at least two very different ways. For example…


Consider this major challenge faced by the recording industry: teenagers illegally downloading songs from the internet are depriving the industry of profits. Instead of asking, How can we get teens to stop stealing our music? (and coming up with the ethically questionable answer, Sue 'em!), what if the industry asked the OPPOSITE of its question, How can we get teens to start buying our music?


Make a list of everything about your situation you know to be true - no matter how large or how small. Now go back and question every assumption you've made:
Is that really so? Does it have to be that way? How could it be some other way?


Consider Mahatma Ghandi, who successfully opposed the British Army … by refusing to eat!

Albert Einstein, a staunch supporter of Ghandi (and no slouch in terms of creative thinking) believed: "If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." For example, maybe both workers could work part time! Remember…

Resist the urge to reject a "wild new idea" the moment you hear it. Instead, try to think Yes! and see where it takes you.

Finally ...


Regardless of how serious or important the stakes, try to think of your problem… as game! That should help free you from feelings of panic or dread. No one said the stakes aren't high; but no one said you had to panic, either. What's required is a "breezy" dedication to the task at hand:

Hmmm… How AM I going to solve this problem?

Remaining optimistic - and following the steps above - you'll be well on your way to discovering a variety of elegant, ethical solutions. For example…

I recently received a fan letter about one of my books from a convicted car thief, Dave, currently an inmate in a Kentucky prison. I immediately wrote back, enclosing another book and feeling confident Dave would have the time to read it. A week later, my parcel was returned, stickered: REFUSED. I found a phone number for the prison, called them up and asked what the problem was. Turns out that inmates - after fourteen days of being there - may not receive packages of any kind. Whatever "extras" they'd like - like an undershirt or a candy bar - must be purchased at the prison commissary.

At first I was stumped. (That's where you start!)

How can I get this book to Dave?

That was my question - or at least the first way I posed my question. Soon, I posed my problem in an "opposite" way:

How can Dave get to this book?

The solution? Donate my book to the prison library and send Dave a letter telling him it's there. So that's what I did, making Dave and his jail "charter members" of my Books for Crooks Club.


Think of your ethical a game! A serious game with serious consequences, but a "game" nonetheless. In fact, Bell South has created a fun online ETHICS GAME! Set up like a quiz show, it's got an ANNOUNCER... GROANS for wrong answers and APPLAUSE for right answers!
Click on: Let's Play The Ethics Game!


[1] I wrote to Bob to ask him about his dad. He replied: "I believe my Dad's conduct was typical, not extraordinary, for his WWII generation. (It's also characteristic, I believe, of our young troops today.)"

[2] For companion articles, click on Joel Saltzman's:

"What Should I Do?: Twelve Key Questions to Ask for Shaping Ethical Business Behavior"


"Writing a Code of Ethics for Your Business"


Joel Saltzman is a speaker, facilitator and consultant who teaches people
in business toShake That Brain!® and discover solutions for maximum profit.
This article is adapted from his latest book, "Shake That Brain!" (Wiley, 2006).
He can be reached Toll Free at 877-Shake It! (877-742-5348).