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In my work as an ethics consultant, I find it useful to categorize people into four ethical types. It is not that one type is necessarily better than another. But knowing a person's ethical type can help a leader predict how employees will react in situations requiring ethical judgment. It also helps you to head off ethical misjudgments before they become problems.
Let's consider a hypothetical, yet common, scenario.
Just after you promote an employee and give him a substantial raise, he receives an attractive job offer from another company. When he accepted the promotion, he told you that he was "in it for the long haul," but now he's not so sure. He wonders whether he should tell you, the boss, about his outside offer.
The first ethical type, the Stickler, looks at ethical situations in terms of "following the rules." If you are trying to convince a Stickler of an ethical point, you have to find a rule that supports that point. Sticklers tend to be rigid and prosper in bureaucratic organizations with rules that are stable. In the above quandary, the Stickler will likely be convinced that he has given his word to you. He will report the outside offer, even if he has no intention of taking it.
A Negotiator tends to make up the rules as she goes along. If you are trying to convince a Negotiator of an ethical point, you have to show her how agreeing with that point is in her interests. Negotiators tend to prosper in sales-driven organizations within lightly regulated industries. In our quandary, the Negotiator will try to turn the outside offer into a bargaining chip, playing you and her prospective employer off against one another to secure the best deal for herself.
A Navigator is oriented toward following the rules, but will compromise to resolve conflicts. If you want to convince a Navigator of an ethical point, you have to convince him that the point is likely to be agreeable to many stakeholders. Navigators do well in many kinds of organizations but may fail in organizations without any inviolable rules. In our quandary, the Navigator probably believes he should tell you but also recognizes the negative consequences of doing so. Some Navigators will tell their boss; others will not.
A Wiggler generally follows ethical rules but is good at finding exceptions to suit her interests. Unlike Negotiators, Wigglers acknowledge ethical rules. But the Wiggler is good at making exceptions for herself. Wigglers do best in organizations in which strict compliance with rules is not required. In our ethical quandary, the Wiggler may not tell you about the outside offer on the grounds that she didn't really promise you anything.
There is no single type that is "best" from an ethical viewpoint, and not everyone falls into these types. For example, there are no saints among these ethical types.
Many ethicists would favour the Stickler. The problem is that Sticklers are often too rigid to steer their organizations toward more ethical actions. I tend to side with the Navigators who not only have principles, but are willing to compromise in pursuit of those principles. Navigators not only see the right path; they can influence others to follow it. The only way to convince a Negotiator to do the right thing is to convince him that it is in his interests. You may have more luck convincing the Wiggler to do the right thing, since you can at least appeal to rules. You just have to persuade her that she is not an exception to the rules.
Mark Pastin is an ethics consultant and the chief executive officer of the Council of Ethical Organizations, an Alexandria, Va.,-based non-profit organization that promotes ethics in business and government. He's also the author of Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action.