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COVID-19, Ethics, & Leadership

Over the past week you’ve probably received countless emails reaffirming that an organization you didn’t know had your email address cares about your safety."

“Organization” takes your health very seriously. That is why we have instituted new hand washing procedures and have begun wiping down high traffic areas multiple times a day. We care about you and our employees.” You’ve also probably heard and read rumors and truths that companies are laying off and furloughing countless employees. These are strange and dark times. Organizations and companies around the global are telling customers and employees the value they place on them. They are defining how to handle emergency situations now and in the future. Essentially, they are telling us their core values and central ethics.

This is not to make light of the real choices supervisors and CEO’s are making. Yet, right now thousands of concrete decisions are being made. These decisions will make some murky ideas very clear to organizations, employees, and clients. Without knowing it, these organizations are establishing future rules that will govern them and will determine how their clients and employees will perceive them. They are, so to speak, putting their money (or lack of it) where their mouth is. Some dutiful employees will be shocked to discover that their employer doesn’t actually care about them at all. Some will not be shocked by this revelation, but will be equally as mad. The ethical choices made today will determine the trajectory of organizations, whether they succeeded when this is all over or whether they are forced to shut their doors. To be clear, regardless of the outcome of the organization itself, they ethical choices an organization makes today will impact their legacy. Perhaps you’ve already seen the memes float around showing (among others) a Legally Blonde Reese Witherspoon asking a potential employee how they kept their employees safe during the coronavirus? How do organizations level up and make hard choices when it matters to everyone? One way to consider the reality of their ethical dilemmas. There are difficult and reverberating decisions to be made, regardless of if the CEO or Board President wants to admit it or not. By considering ethical choices a battleground of real consequences, organizations can shape their own future instead of allowing the nebulous of our collective future do it for them.


Brady in his 2003 article in Public Administration Review entitled “Publics administration and the ethics of particularity” makes an interesting statement regarding character, “character, whether of a person or community, can only be taught as immersed in particulars, by stories and by exemplars.” We are living in the stories right now that will be analyzed for the next 100 years. Our time and story is so unique that we are offered the opportunity to demonstrate how to handle a global disaster. Think about this as an opportunity to literally write the playbook. As Brady states, character development occurs not in theories and philosophical debates, but in real-life situations and ethical choices. Ethics then, according to this line of thinking, is a battle or training ground where those real-life decisions are determined and made. This concept implies the lack of simplicity associated with ethical choices. Ethical processes are confrontational, messy, and quite often, rocky, but it is through this process that the evolution of organizational ethics occurs. It is during these ethical battles that concrete determinations are made. Decisions about direction, mission, and purpose are all made as a result of the ethical battles, consequently making the battle very important. This is a battle for the future of our organizations and the real-life consequences matter, not just because they will get us through to the next day, but because they will draw a proverbial line in the sand.

You the Decision Maker

Recently, after canceling a multi-city tour last minute, a popular comedian was lamenting the weight of the decisions on Instagram. He was baffled that, not only did he cancel his tour, but that he was the one who was forced to make the choice. According to his line of thinking, someone with more experience, more knowledge, and more education should have made the choice, but he came to find out that the person in charge was him. This is the boat many are in right now. The person in charge is you. This results in a lot of muddle and difficult decisions being made over the kitchen table with head in hands. As a result of this ethical dilemma, as Brady points out in the article, leaders must rely on personal discretion. “Our…experience with…duty is directed at concrete particulars- a promise to a neighbor, a commitment to a friend, a covenant with a spouse, an agreement with a child.” In other words, the outcome and purpose of the ethical battles that take place within every organization are critical because the outcome affects something real and concrete, a real promise and a real person. Ethical choices should not be made lightly, or without regard to opposing sides, because in the end it is not a possibility or idea that is affected, rather it is a framework of the organization’s ethical legacy and the people it affects.

Brady, F. Neil. (2003). “Publics” Administration and the Ethics of Particularity. Public Administration Review, 63(5), 525-534.

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