At Better Business Bureau, our core mission is to build trust in the marketplace. We want to help create a world where people can trust that businesses will provide quality goods and services in and honest and transparent way; and where businesses can expect the same honesty and transparency from their customers.
To this end, we speak to lots of different groups and organizations about a wide range of issues related to trust. Recently, I spoke to a group of over 200 high school student leaders. My program was titled “Ethical Decision Making in Leadership and Life.”
More than anything, my goal was to create a group discussion, designed to get them think about the difficulties that can be inherent in ethical decision-making. What if someone will be hurt by what seems like an ethical decision? What if a situation presents conflicting ethical values? What if your idea of “ethical” is different from someone else’s? These were the things we discussed, and it was exciting to see so many teens really get into the subject – arguing points, asking questions, and offering examples from their own lives.
In the end, we agreed that I could not begin to tell them what living ethically should mean for them. They will be faced with ethical decisions, large and small, on a nearly daily basis for the rest of their lives. My point was that the key is for each individual to figure out her own personal process for making ethical decisions. Someone else’s way and my way might be very similar or even identical, but each person must decide what process makes sense for them, and then figure out how that process fits in with such thing as the law and the rest of society.
As a way to help them think about this, I shared my own process with them, stressing that this is my personal process and was not necessarily right for them or anyone else.
I simplified my model for ethical decision-making by creating the “HEART” acronym
H – Hurt – Will this hurt someone? Including myself?
E – Everyone – If everyone did this, would the world be a better or worse place?
A – Analyze – Have I really analyzed the action and thought about the consequences?
R – Responsibility – Am I prepared to take responsibility for whatever happens?
T – Transparency – Is it okay with me if everyone knows I did this?
The “HEART” acronym led to plenty of discussion about what sort of mental construct the kids might use to make ethical decisions. Among my favorites were whether they could live with what they had done and whether they would get caught (okay, that last one is not really something we should encourage – it is still one of my favorites, though, because it led to some really great discussion about right and wrong and telling the truth).
At the end of our time together, the students and I had had an incredible discussion about the process of making ethical decisions. Many of us thought about some pretty important things for the very first time, and gave real consideration to how we can be the kind of people we want to be. Circling back to the mission of the BBB, this seems like a pretty good start to building trust in the marketplace.