Mum speaks to her child. How do we decide what's right?

6. How to decide what’s RIGHT
Acting with Integrity is tough; who said the good life was easy?

Moral reasoning is a bit like algebra; it’s important, not only to do the right thing, but also to show why you are doing the right thing. Others might disagree with your decision, but if you show why and how you are acting with integrity, your actions and your integrity are less likely to be doubted.

So, in this episode of our LiveBook, we will explore a simple framework for moral reasoning, supported by a simple acronym that will help us decide what’s right.

“Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?”

Winnie the Pooh

“He errs as other men do, but errs with integrity.” 

Thomas Jefferson on George Washington

Imagine that you go to a local ATM to withdraw some cash. Instead of the amount you keyed in, the machine dispenses double what you requested because it’s been mistakenly stacked with higher denomination notes by the bank staff.

Would you keep the extra cash? Or would you decide to return it? Why would you keep it?

If you did decide to return the money, would it be because:

  1. That’s the law. To keep it would be theft. I must obey the RULES.
  1. I have INTEGRITY. I’m thinking about moral values like honesty and trust.
  1. We must think of what’s GOOD for everyone, not just me. We must do what’s best for society as a whole.
  1. Stealing someone else’s money will HARM them. Banks are ultimately owned by millions of ordinary shareholders and pensioners.
  1. If we get caught, we must face up to the TRUTH of our actions.

Which of these reasons was closest to how you would actually think and feel in this situation? Did you think of more than one of these reasons? If so, you’re already well on the way to learning how to do what’s RIGHT, and as you can now see, the acronym RIGHT stands for:

Rules – What are the Rules?

Integrity – How do we act with Integrity?

Good – Who is this Good for?

Harm – Who could we Harm?

Truth – What’s the Truth?

Can you also see how our three ethical lenses of Love, Logic and Law are core to this simple framework? Rules are about Law; integrity is the Logic of how we think about our values; and Love is our concern for maximising Good and minimising Harm for other people.

Let’s now apply the RIGHT questions to a workplace dilemma. This is based on a true story and one that has reminded many people of similar situations they’ve found themselves in.

A woman's hand removes cash from an ATM - 'How to go what's right'

One of your colleagues at work is also a good personal friend. Tomorrow, she will complete the purchase of a new and more expensive home. She is a single mum with a three-year-old disabled daughter. Your boss calls you into her office to tell you in strictest confidence that, as a result of budget cuts, several members of your friend’s team are to be made redundant next month, including your friend. What would be the RIGHT thing to do?

  1. Tell your friend
  2. Drop a hint
  3. Say nothing


What are the Rules?

Remember that when we speak of rules, we mean any relevant laws, regulations, rules, codes, contracts or anything else that state our legal rights and duties. If we find any rule that clearly tells us what, or what not to do then this is the beginning and the end of the process. However, rules, like values, may conflict, especially between legal jurisdictions; or they might not tell us clearly what to do; or they might not address the issue we face. If in doubt, this is the time to check with a lawyer, a compliance officer or the company secretary. However, just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s right!

In this dilemma, the rules are clear. You have been given this information in strict confidence. All employees have a contractual duty to maintain confidentiality when specifically told. Whilst your heart might tell you clearly that you must do something to help your friend, you would be breaking the rules. So when we ask, “What are the Rules?” telling our friend or dropping a hint are clearly wrong. Why is it, then, that in these or similar circumstances, many good people would believe that what’s right would be to tell your friend or at least drop a hint? That’s why we still have to explore the other questions…

“There can be no friendship without confidence, and no confidence without integrity.”

Samuel Johnson

“To act with integrity means we cannot pick and choose our values to justify what’s easy.”

How do we act with Integrity?

To answer this question, we need to know what our values are. It sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at the number of people and organisations who have never thought about what their values are, or if they have, fail to apply them.

If you are in any doubt about what your values are or should be in this situation, remember the list we explored earlier: wisdom, fairness, courage, patience, loyalty, hope, care, honesty, excellence and respect. So how do they guide us?

You may feel that loyalty and concern for your friend’s welfare are paramount. However, we should also remember that moral values are universal insofar that these same values should guide how you act in relation to everyone else involved. We might believe that being loyal to friends is a great quality in life, but what about others who deserve our loyalty? What about everyone else in the team? How about your own family if you get fired? How can we build loyalty and trust if we break confidences?

This is why acting with Integrity is tough. That’s also why it’s dangerous just to focus on one or two values like loyalty and care. We must consider all our values together. That’s what Integrity means – whole, complete and undivided. To act with Integrity means we cannot pick and choose our values to justify what’s easy. We have to embrace them all in order to do what’s right. Most people believe that, as with Rules, to act with Integrity also means that to tell our friend or drop a hint would be wrong.

Who is this Good for?

Asking and answering this question is the first stage in thinking of the consequences of our actions on others. What we have to do is to take each of our options and ask who’s involved and how they might benefit from each of our options.

So, we can argue that to tell our friend or drop a hint might be Good for our friend and her disabled daughter. It might also be Good for our friendship, but that’s pretty much it. If we break the Rules, fail to act with Integrity, and tell our friend just two or three people might benefit. If, on the other hand, we decide to do nothing, we could argue that no one actually benefits because all we are doing is maintaining the status quo. So, if we break confidentiality, we might do some Good for our friend, her daughter and our reputation as a good friend. But then again, telling your friend or dropping a hint could also Harm each of you…

Who could we Harm?

… because you’re panicking and thinking that the worst might happen. It’s our primitive brain reacting to a hostile situation. But is it really that bad? Let’s just assume you do tell your friend and she also reacts with fear and pulls out of the new house deal. She’s lost a new home that she’s been looking forward to for weeks. Someone has also overheard your whispered conversation and you’ve been fired for gross misconduct.

But if we say nothing and keep the confidence, sure, your friend will lose her job, but if you work for a good employer she’ll also get a payoff and she can get another job. And if it takes time, you’ve still got your job because you’ve done the RIGHT thing and you can help her out with the bills, because that’s what good friends do.

What’s the Truth?

Having run this scenario in many different workplaces and cultures, the majority conclude that most people would drop a hint, but remember, the Truth reminds us that dropping a hint is just as bad if not worse than simply telling the friend straight. If you’re found out, either way, you’re both out of a job.

But it also hurts to keep quiet. How will your friend feel when she finds out that you knew and did nothing? Well, you can argue that doing nothing in this case is the same as doing what’s right. I think good friends will understand that good friends do what’s right. Do we think life would be better if true friendship was about breaking rules, acting without integrity and reacting with fear? Or do we want friends who we can rely on to do what’s right, even though it takes courage?

And finally, what exactly did happen in the real-life incident? A hint was dropped and overheard by another staff member; the worker lost her job as predicted, her friend, who dropped the hint, was later fired for gross misconduct.

We now have our three ethical lenses of Love, Logic and the Law. We have discovered our MoralDNA. We have explored and practised deciding what’s RIGHT. Moving on, we will explore the next crucial aspect of being good at work: Culture – how can we all create and experience the right culture to do the right thing?

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As well as drawing my own conclusions I read and research many papers, books, articles and essays on how we, as humans, go about our business. Discover a selection and read on within More Good Thinking.

Discover your MoralDNA profile here