What's Your Ethical Type?

As an ethics consultant, I've found that people often fall into one of four ethical categories. One type isn't necessarily better than another, but knowing a person's "ethical type" can help you predict how he or she will react in situations requiring ethical judgment. And, it helps when people know and understand their own ethical type as they face ethical challenges.

How a person chooses to react to the following ethical dilemma illustrates the four ethical types:
Just after your current employer promoted you and gave you a substantial raise, you receive an attractive job offer from another company. When you got your promotion, you told your boss you were "in it for the long haul," but now you're not so sure. Should you tell your boss about the outside offer?

The first ethical type, the Stickler, looks at ethical situations in term of following the rules. Anyone trying to convince a Stickler of an ethical point will have to find a rule that supports that point. Sticklers tend to be rigid and prosper in bureaucratic organizations with stable rules. In this scenario, the Stickler will likely conclude that he has given his word to his boss. He will report the outside offer even if he has no intention of taking it.

Negotiators, the second ethical type, make up the rules as they go along. When trying to convince a Negotiator of an ethical point, you have to show them how agreeing with that point is in their interest. Negotiators tend to prosper in sales-driven organizations within lightly regulated industries. In our scenario, the Negotiator will try to turn the outside offer into a bargaining chip, playing her current employer and prospective employer against one another.

The third type, the Navigator, follows the rules, but will compromise to resolve conflicts. Convincing a Navigator of an ethical point requires you to make the point that it will likely be agreeable to many stakeholders. Navigators do well in many kinds of organizations, but may fail in organizations without any inviolable rules. In the described dilemma, the Navigator believes she should tell her boss, but also recognizes the negative consequences of doing so. Some Navigators will tell their boss; others will not.

A Wiggler, the final ethical type, generally follows ethical rules, but is good at finding exceptions to suit his interests. Unlike Negotiators, Wigglers acknowledge ethical rules. But the Wiggler is good at making exceptions for himself. Wigglers do best in organizations in which strict compliance with rules is not required. In our scenario, the Wiggler may not tell his boss about the outside offer on the grounds that he didn't really promise his boss anything.

These ethical types are, of course, approximate, and no single type is "best" from an ethical viewpoint. Note, too, that not everyone falls into these four types. For example, no saints appear among these ethical types. Of course, you don't meet many saints in the typical workplace, either.

Many ethicists would favor the Stickler. However, Sticklers are often too rigid to steer their organizations towards more ethical actions. I tend to side with the Navigators who not only have principles, but will compromise in pursuit of those principles. Navigators not only see the right path, they can influence others to follow it. With a Negotiator, the only way to convince her to do the right thing is to show her that it's in her best interest. You may have more luck convincing the Wiggler to do the right thing, since you can at least appeal to established rules. You just have to persuade him that he isn't an exception to the rules.