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Welcome to the new ethical context

April 8, 2022, 3:50 PM UTC
A protester against racism in the Netherlands. There is no such thing as “cancel culture.” Our collective culture is instead demanding, for example, that comedy be both funny and without disrespect.
MARCO DE SWART - ANP - AFP - Getty Images

With high-profile exits of senior executives from WarnerMedia, Estée Lauder, and Ralph Lauren since the beginning of 2022—all for reasons unrelated to performance—corporate leaders’ ethics are once again under the spotlight.  

What’s happening? Are leaders suddenly behaving badly—or worse than before?

As organizations emerge from an unexpected reset of the world of work, we are not just walking into new commercial realities: We’re entering an entirely new ethical context. 

For Lauder’s John Demsey, who exited following a racist Instagram post, that contextual shift is obvious.

Workplace humor once considered edgy by some is now well-understood to be contrary to creating supportive and engaging environments for all employees and customers. While humor is certainly good, our ethical context clearly identifies the benefits of respect for core social identities as superior to those of ostensible comedy. 

Calling that “cancellation” is dishonest. Our collective culture is instead demanding that comedy be both funny and without disrespect. That’s not a terribly high bar, but it is a raised one.  

The same goes for workplace relationships, à la CNN’s Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust. Office romance isn’t inherently wrong, but making sure it doesn’t harm people with less power requires a different standard of relationship management.

Leaders can’t sidestep discussing ethics. Where executive conduct once could have been isolated and public comment avoided, visible inaction is no longer an option. Many stakeholders interpret silence as an affirmation of behavior. It may be impossible to please everyone, but it is also impossible to be apolitical. 

Faced with varied perspectives on ethics, leaders looking to navigate dynamic context must not refer to popularity as the determinant of what is ethical. Very popular ideas can be wholly unethical, and wholly ethical ideas can be deeply unpopular. 

Well-intentioned leaders can avoid being caught off guard by a complex ethical crisis by using three temporal frames to address controversial issues in advance rather than trying to solve every possible scenario:

Past: Explore the sources of your personal morality

Knowing that ethics and morals are not the same, examine where and how you developed your understanding of right and wrong—and consider how that informs your understanding of what is beneficial or detrimental in your context (ethics).

It’s not enough to hope to do the right thing when the time comes. Understanding what informs our worldview in the abstract better equips us to serve as forces for good when confronted with difficult, real decisions.   

Present: Regularly and repeatedly reevaluate your surroundings

Ethics are about what is helpful and what is harmful in a particular context. Assuming that you will be able to make decisions following a clear guideline of “right or wrong for the organization” ignores the reality that most ethical contexts demand greater nuance because of different perspectives on that context.

Consider your varied stakeholders’ views. Who might be harmed by action or inaction on a controversial topic? What aspects of their identities, experiences, or backgrounds might inform their views? What does my interpretation of contrary views tell me about what matters in our current setting? 

Future: Imagine what could shift again

Once you’ve settled on a clear understanding of your current-day context, given what you know about your stakeholders, what about their interests could change how they evaluate help or harm in your operating context? 

In the future, how might you think differently about what matters? What circumstances—no matter how outlandish, like, say, working from home for two years amid a global pandemic—could accelerate that shift? What does the potential for these changes tell us about how future generations might assess our behaviors and choices today?   

People aren’t behaving worse. However, our understanding of what is okay (and what isn’t) looks much different than it did even two years ago, and it will change again two years from now.

Rather than grappling with complex decision-making every time crises arise, the best leaders will seek to understand their ethical operating context today and start preparing now.   

Eric Pliner is the CEO of YSC Consulting and the author of Difficult Decisions.  

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