The Business Improvement Network

Ethically Speaking

By Nick Brook

Between the IT worker who exposed HSBC for unethical practise and the government scientist that gave warnings over the so called Iraqi "sexed up" dossier, it can be seen that whistle-blowing comes with a high price. Of course not all ethical dilemmas are so high profile and not all actions lead to someone blowing the whistle on wrongdoing. They nonetheless have the potential to impact for years upon the protagonist’s professional and personal lives.

Far worse can happen when ethics are discarded:

“senior managers at Morton Thiokol decided to reverse that recommendation (one famously having been told to “take off your engineering hat and put on your management one”) without seeking a consensus with their engineers”……..”Seventy three seconds after launch, travelling at over Mach 3 at an altitude of 10.4 miles the vehicle exploded”. - Challenger Launch Decision.

So how do we decide on the right thing to do?

What are ethics?

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

A set of moral principles: a theory or system of moral values - the present-day materialistic ethic - an old-fashioned work ethic - often used in plural but singular or plural in construction - an elaborate ethics - Christian ethics

Ethics plural in form but singular or plural in construction: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group - professional ethics
a guiding philosophy

A consciousness of moral importance - forge a conservation ethic

All very subjective and there is the exact problem. The rules are fuzzy, self-defined and are shaped by an individual’s upbringing, education and experiences. Worse, they are situational, being influenced by the organisation’s values and culture. 

What we need is a basis for our decision making. 

What is and is not ethical?

As stated above, experience and education will partially prepare us for these difficult decisions. We can flex our ethical muscles through previous less serious decisions and, as we grow older, develop internal rules and lines beyond which it is unethical to cross.  Being prepared for the ethical dilemma does us no harm at all.

An important concept is the locus of control, that of external versus internal control. External control is typified by the ‘I was just following orders’ response to wrong doing. Anyone interested to what happens when a group is giving total authority over another should consult literature on the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’. It makes for sobering reading. Ethical organisations have cultures that empower its members, encouraging internal control of decision making. 

Decision making criteria can be divided into three categories:

• Utilitarianism – maximise good for the greatest number;

• Rights – consider rights of those affected only;

• Justice – maintenance of rules/standards or equitable distribution of costs and benefits.

There is some scope for conflict between and within these categories. The classical example is ‘lifeboat dilemma’, where only six people can be saved from a group of ten. Which six live? A more run-of-the-mill scenario is choice between whether or not to report a financial irregularity when it could lead to a loss of jobs.

The first two categories are especially subjective and open to the most interpretation. The latter category is supported by the rule of law but often more usefully there are professional guidelines that can be referenced. The UK Engineering Council provides much guidance for its member and divides them into four fundamental principles; comprising of ‘honesty and integrity’, ‘respect for life, law, the environment and public good’, ‘accuracy and rigour’ and ‘leadership and communication’.

Other professional organisations present similar ‘rules’ for its members. The International Federation of Accountants assesses against what is in the Public Interest, considering the dimensions of both outcome (net benefits) and process:

Assessment  of  Costs/Benefits - The  extent  to  which,  for  society  as  a  whole, the  benefits  of  the action, decision, or policy outweigh the costs;

Assessment  of  Process - The  extent  to  which  the  manner  for  considering  the  action,  decision,  or policy  was  conducted  with  the  qualities of  transparency,  public  accountability,  independence, competence, adherence to due process, and participation.

Another approach is to consider “what a reasonable man would do in this situation”. This can be used to apply three further rules:

The  Rule  of  Private  Gain - If  you  are  the  only  one  personally  gaining  from  the  situation,  is  it  is  at  the expense of another? If so, you may benefit from questioning your ethics in advance of the decision.

If Everyone Does It Who would be hurt?  What would the world be like?  

Benefits vs. Burden - If benefits do result, do they outweigh the burden?

Identification of the ethical issues is less than half the story. You know need to do something with your knowledge.

Taking action

More difficult still is determining a course of action. There are three aspects to this which include; identifying possible course of action, deciding on the most appropriate course of action under these circumstances, and reviewing the outcomes and revising the approach as required.

Do we confront the perpetrator of a wrongdoing directly, report them to a higher authority or directly take control of a situation? The courses of action are influenced by the relative level of authority you possess, thus how effective it will be, and the consequences personally to yourself as a result of it. 

In extreme circumstances, it may be necessary to report the matter externally, for instance to a regulator. This potentially leads to a conflict between the ethics and legality of breaking of confidentiality with the stopping of unethical behaviours. 

A case in point is that of Hervé Falciani who reported the unethical behaviour of HSBC’s Swiss banking arm. He was sentenced in-absence for five years by the Swizz courts. He was also working with French, German, British, Spanish, Indian and Argentinian authorities in their investigation into tax evasion and illegal arms dealing. 

This example tells us a great deal about the definition of public interest in Switzerland and how influential culture can be.

Case Study

In lieu of personal experience, the very next best thing is to use those of others. The Challenger disaster is an excellent example of a series of events that could have been halted if only the ethical decision had been taken. 

On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts were killed when the space shuttle they were piloting, the Challenger, exploded at just over a minute into the flight. The failure of the solid rocket booster (SRB) O-rings to seal properly allowed hot combustion gases to leak from the side of the booster and burn through the external fuel tank. The failure of the O-ring was attributed to several factors, including faulty design of the solid rocket boosters, insufficient low-temperature testing of the O-ring material and of the joints that the O-ring sealed, and lack of proper communication between different levels of NASA management.

At the time, NASA managers were anxious to launch the Challenger for intense economic, political, and scheduling reasons.

Morton-Thiokol was awarded the contract to design and build the SRBs in 1974. The Morton-Thiokol Project Director was convinced that there were cold-weather problems with the solid rocket motors and assigned two engineers to investigate. Thiokol knew there was a problem with the SRBs from as early as 1977.

Almost half the launched SRBs had experienced problems with the O-rings and NASA’s top management had been briefed on the problem in 1985. Work to redesign the SRB began in the same year. However, the Morton-Thiokol engineers had expressed concerns this work wasn’t receiving management support.

External temperatures for the next launch date were predicted to be far below previous launches, prompting Morton-Thiokol to prepare a presentation on the effects of cold temperature on booster performance.

With limited time and limited supporting data, Morton-Thiokol recommended to NASA that the launch be postponed. NASA disagreed, challenging the engineer’s logic and stating the data was inconclusive. There were unsuccessful attempts to bypass the engineer’s authority but a particular manager maintained support despite intense pressure.

After an ‘offline’ discussion within Morton-Thiokol, a senior manager famously declared, "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat." Morton-Thiokol’s resistance to the launch was reversed, in-spite of the engineer’s staunch disagreement.

From this it is obvious that not all are equal within ethical decision making. The experts opinions were not given enough weight and managerial expediency prevailed. The other complication was the incomplete data to support the decision not to launch. Management plainly took the view that the SRB could not be proved unsafe, ergo it was safe.

This prompts a number of questions:

• What proportion of blame for the launch decision should be assigned to NASA, Morton-Thiokol management and Morton-Thiokol engineers?

• What can be done when information is complete and time is short?

• What could have been done differently by the Morton-Thiokol engineers, both over the preceding year and on the day of the launch decision?  

• To what degree did implicit threats to their careers limit the action they took?

Of course this is an extreme example. However, it contains all the ingredients that are present in many, many other situations.


There is much literature on what to do when confronted with a difficult ethical decision. My personal advice would be as follows:

Be prepared - be aware of the lines you will not cross and own moral principles and ethical philosophy. This can be supplemented by the knowledge of ethical guidance from your profession or professional organisation.

Be aware of the culture - determine if you are in a culture of acceptance and be conscious of how you may be influenced to take a particular path. 

Anticipate - Sometimes early action can be taken that need not be as severe or the situation can be prevented entirely.

Gather all available information early -  this is to prevent being pressed into making a decision with an incomplete picture.

Try not make a snap decision – make a reasoned decision and be proportionate with your response, creating strong arguments for you decision from available information.

Consider the ethics for all sides - determine if a decision that you consider ethical may breach other codes of ethics, for example confidentiality. Select the least worst course of action.

Use past experience - if possible, determine how similar situation were resolved (or not) previously. This can be used as a guide to whether a proposed course of action will be effective.

Be prepared to escalate - the response may need to be taken up successive levels of management if your first efforts are ineffective.

Finally you will need to understand the options if your views are not listened to and of the possible outomes if the matter is taken beyond the limits of the organisation. Whistle-blowing really is a last resort and comes with the potential severe consequences.

Please let me know your views on this complex subject.

About the author

Nick is a project engineering manager with over 20 years’ experience across a wide range of industry domains. When not trying to get his message across he spends his free time with his family and tinkering with anything from Land Rovers to Linux.

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