Ethical awareness is the ability to identify moral or ethical issues and the inclination to do something about them.
In philosophy, "ethics" has three main branches. The first, based on Aristotle's work, focuses on virtues such as justice, generosity, and charity as beneficial to individuals and society at large. The second, popularized by Kant, is about duty: it holds that people are bound by rationality to respect others. The third branch revolves around the idea that people should be guided by a simple principle: what serves, or brings happiness to, the greatest number of people?
Let us talk about real-world application. Normative ethics are the norms or standards of conduct in a given place (the term "ethical awareness" is used in academic settings and in professional contexts, so this could be a school or an office.) An ethical dilemma occurs when two values clash, especially when it is not clear that one party is "right" or "wrong."
Ethical awareness is very important in the workplace because it allows people to focus on performing their jobs without the constant temptation of cutting corners or doing something "wrong" that would have a quick benefit, either to the individual or to the company he works for. To quote Michael C. Hyter, a senior partner and leadership and talent consultant at Korn Ferry in Washington, D.C., "[an ethical workplace culture] means an environment that makes it easy to do the right thing and makes it difficult to do the wrong thing." (See more from him in the article I attached from the Society for Human Resource Management.)
In the workplace, individual best practices for ethical awareness may include the following:
- Identifying an ethical problem or conflict
- Assessing how serious the issue is
- Communicating this problem to others in the community (especially those who are trained to deal with them—usually an HR team)
- Changing one's own perspective to see the issue from a different angle
- Predicting how an ethical issue could affect others in the workplace
A company's best practices for ethical awareness may include the following:
- Educating staff on the significance of ethics in the workplace
- Establising a clear code of conduct that all employees are expected to follow
- Training a special team (often this falls within HR, or Human Resources) to mediate or make decisions when ethical dilemmas occur
- Anticipating ethical dilemmas
- Remaining alert to ethical conflicts before they become larger problems
- Examining an existing issue from a range of perspectives
- Staying up-to-date on tools and resources that assist individuals and the company with making ethically sound choices
- Considering the implications of the issue in the future of the workplace
- Developing a system to report violations confidentially or anonymously
- Offering performance reviews of ethical conduct
- Implementing a system to discipline employees who violate the ethical code
Let us look at two real-life examples of best practices of ethical awareness in the workplace. You can see more detail on either of these in the article I have attached.
Example 1: A company invites a convicted felon (a former CFO for a healthcare company who spent 5 years in prison for fraud) to talk to employees about the lessons he has learned. Current employees who might be tempted to compromise ethically have a chance to consider the long-term consequences of a questionable decision.
Best practice: The company anticipates a problem and stays up-to-date on tools and resources (in this case, a live speaker) to prevent ethical dilemmas.
Example 2: A company replaces an online ethics training program with a more contemporary and appealing video that employees are more likely to actually pay attention to.
Best practice: Again, the company is staying up-to-date on teaching tools and resources. They are establishing a code of ethical conduct. They are educating their employees. They are laying out the consequences (the disciplinary actions that an employee will face if he breaks the code of ethics) and possibly preventing ethical issues from arising in the first place.