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Getting down to basics: The business of acting ethically

Author Bruce Weinstein says moral actions begin with 'ethical intelligence.'

Ana Lourdes Alvarenga-Silva/Ana Lourdes Alvarenga-Silva

Ethical Intelligence

By Bruce Weinstein

(New World Library, 237 pages, $16.50)

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Imagine you're having lunch in a restaurant and overhear two office colleagues at a neighbouring table talking about a client with whom your business is having problems. They're identifying the client by name and giving specific information about the difficulties. Would you mention to them later that you thought they could be endangering confidentiality, or would you let it pass?

Imagine you're supervising an employee who has ignored your entreaties to stop coming late to work, taking long lunches, and sneaking away early. You fired someone recently for similar behaviour, but this employee is the daughter of a close friend. What do you do?

Imagine you wake up one morning with the flu. Do you stay at home and rest; stay at home and work; go to work but avoid socializing with others; or go to work and socialize only with people you don't like?

Each of these scenarios raises an ethical issue. It's easy for us to address the glaring ethical lapses that show up in business case studies of Enron, the BP oil spill, and the U.S. mortgage scandal. But many other ethical issues are more subtle and hit more directly in our work lives.

American author and ethics consultant Bruce Weinstein (who dubs himself the Ethics Guy) says we need ethical intelligence if we are to be successful in dealing with others.

"To be fully human, it's not enough to have emotional intelligence. We need ethical intelligence too," he writes in Ethical Intelligence.

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He describes ethical intelligence as having the capacity to discover the right answer in a difficult ethical situation; acting upon what you discover; and committing to making this exploration a lifelong journey.

He lays out five main principles of ethical intelligence to help you handle common quandaries, including the three scenarios given above:

Do no harm

This principle of restraint, drawn from the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, applies to all fields. "The very least you can expect from your fellow human beings is their willingness not to inflict physical or emotional damage on you, and of course, they have the right to insist you do the same for them," Mr. Weinstein says.

With this should come a commitment to prevent harm (telling a friend not drive home from a bar after drinking too much) and minimizing harm when you are doing something that will hurt people (downsizing a department). This principle means you don't go to the office when sick, no matter how devoted you are to the company and your work, because you can harm others. (Working at home, by the way, harms you – so just rest.)

Make things better

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You presumably got into your line of work to make a positive difference in some way. So beyond avoiding harm, you want to help others, whether by providing excellent service to a customer or starting a business to address a societal need. Mr. Weinstein also urges you to take time each day to make things better for yourself – eating well, making time for a walk, meditating, napping, or playing.

Respect others

Ethically intelligent people honour the values, preferences and rights of others. They follow something that sounds like the Golden Rule but is actually directed more toward others: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." This means you have to learn about others, including their values and idiosyncratic preferences, to provide proper respect. In the scenario about loose talk about clients at a restaurant, respecting others – the clients – means you need to point out to your colleagues that they should be more careful.

Be fair

You must give others their due when allocating scarce resources, disciplining or punishing, and rectifying injustices that occur. This principle means you must fire your friend's tardy daughter, to be equitable after having dismissed someone else for similar offences.

Be loving

This may not seem an ethical matter, but Mr. Weinstein argues that "love is like the WD-40 of relationships. It's not absolutely necessary, and you couldn't be blamed for not using it – but it does make things flow better. Applying the first four principles of ethical intelligence is much easier to do when you use a little bit of love."

When considering a course of action, he suggests you ask yourself the following five questions: Will it avoid causing harm? Will it make things better? Is it respectful? Is it fair? Is it a loving thing to do?

That's a simple, practical approach to ethics, both in your personal life and in the workplace. After the author sets that foundation, the book wanders a bit as he tackles a variety of issues that may not be of interest to every reader. But if you want a handy guide to ethics, Ethical Intelligence is a reasonable choice.



Is taking a vacation an ethical issue? Bruce Weinstein thinks so. You have an ethical responsibility to do your job to the best of your ability, and that means recharging periodically. As well, it's important we be loving as human beings, and that includes being loving to yourself. "Going for months or years without a vacation isn't a very kind way to treat yourself," he writes in Ethical Intelligence.

And if you're making an excuse for not taking a vacation, don't claim that co-workers aren't in your office or that you don't want to burden them with extra work while you're gone. Mr. Weinstein says that's noble, but your colleagues are entitled to a vacation, too. Ultimately the fair distribution of labour is a management issue, not your responsibility.

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