Ethical Decision-Making at the Speed of Business
by Austin McKinney
The following essay was written in response to this prompt, posed by business faculty: Have you faced an ethical dilemma since returning from our trip that you feel comfortable sharing with the group—in business or your personal life? What happened? How did you deal with it? Did the experiences or learning with FASPE change how you think about your own behavior, the behavior of others, or the situation more broadly?
I recently faced an ethical dilemma at work that almost slipped under my radar. Because the stakes were relatively low, I initially did not even recognize this decision as worthy of ethical consideration. Yet, as we learned on FASPE, small decisions we make as professionals can have enormous consequences, if left unexamined.
After graduation from my MBA program, I joined a tech company that provides sales and marketing automation software to businesses. One of my main projects was to research if our company should sell its products in additional international currencies, and, if so, which currencies should be prioritized. I also had to design the operational plan for implementing the changes. It was, by most standards, a normal initiative for a mid-level manager. I was then expected to recommend a strategy to more senior executives for their final approval.
When the task was assigned to me, my education and experience kicked in, and I immediately started acting. I attacked this problem the same way that many business leaders would: I studied what our peer companies were doing; I dove into the internal data to see what had happened when we had previously opened sales in other currencies; I created a financial model for what the future results could be if we decided to take this path; and I started previewing my recommendations to leaders throughout the company.
The data I surfaced made me feel certain that I had an airtight argument. I looked at five different case studies in our company’s history to create reasonable comparisons for what the company should expect to happen to revenue and costs if we opened to additional currencies. The numbers looked strong. I was confident. In fact, I was ready to be asked to lead the implementation of my recommendation. (Fingers crossed.)
However, when I shared my findings with another colleague, he mentioned, offhandedly, a scenario that I had not yet considered. He said that he was impressed by my research and that, overall, he supported my recommendations, but he encouraged me to look at another metric through a different case study. No problem, I thought. Later, when I ran those numbers on my own, the scenario and implied future results actually looked pretty bad. It did not support my original recommendation; it pointed in the opposite direction.
I quickly decided to forget his scenario and move forward without it. I had five solid case studies supporting my recommendations—why would this one outside data point mean anything? The evidence was strong. I genuinely wanted the company to adopt my ideas. I also wanted to gain the trust of my supervisors—and gain the responsibility—to lead an important change. As a result, I just went back to polishing my final presentation to senior executives. It was showtime.
As I said, I almost did not even think twice. One slide in a PowerPoint presentation was not worthy of weighty ethical deliberation, I reasoned. I was ready to nail my pitch to the executives and to get started on the real work of turning this idea into reality. But a few days later, something was gnawing at the back of my mind. Was my pride—and my desire to succeed—getting in the way? Was my personal attachment to a specific outcome clouding my judgement of what was best for the company? Was my bias toward action preventing me from undertaking a rigorous evaluation of the decision?
In some ways, the answer to all of these questions was yes. FASPE taught me that commonplace human emotions and ordinary professional pressures can motivate awful decision-making. Sometimes, that poor decision-making can lead to disastrous consequences for others. Business professionals pursuing their immediate self-interest can participate in acts of great harm to the company, its employees, or the society and environment in which it operates.
Ultimately, I decided to include the sixth case study. In my presentation to senior executives, I detailed one different data perspective that could potentially undermine my entire set of recommendations. I still lobbied hard, however, for my vision of the future.
In the end, I felt that I had been thoughtful and purposeful in my actions—giving due ethical consideration to a decision point that might have otherwise slipped by me unnoticed. In the chaos of business, with its ever-present demands for making decisions, taking risks, and achieving big goals, professionals should still protect adequate space for reconsideration. Seldom are we confronted with an abrupt, profound ethical dilemma; instead, we make many series of small decisions—often without reflection—that can lead us to consequences far more harmful than we originally envisioned. As business leaders, we must challenge ourselves to keep our minds present and our senses attuned to the world around us, so that we can recognize when an impulse, reaction, or decision warrants further reflection—and, sometimes, a correction. In this way, we can help prevent small decisions from accumulating into situations we never intended to create.
Austin McKinney was a 2019 Business Fellow. He is a diplomat with the United States Department of State, currently serving in Mexico.