Doing the right thing - ethical decisions

Doing The Right Thing: How to Make Ethical Decisions

November 16, 2018

Critical takeaways

  • Knowing the right thing to do in the run up to or aftermath of a crisis can be difficult. A process for ethical decision-making is needed to overcome these challenges.
  • Immanuel Kant’s philosophy – based on the four pillars of autonomy; the categorical imperative; ethical considerations; and symmetrical communications – provides an excellent framework for these difficult decisions.
  • Kith has adapted a four-step model to guide CEOs and their advisors through this difficult process.


At Kith, we spend a lot of time on conference calls and in boardrooms, working with clients to determine what to do in the midst of a critical moment. A lot of what we’re doing is considering the implications of decisions, wrestling with how to do the right thing at the right time for the right people.

These aren’t the in-the-moment crisis decisions: those need to be made with speed, reflecting your mission and values. These are the more deliberate decisions taken before or after a critical moment. Decisions such as who is eligible for compensation or who deserves punishment.

But how can a CEO even tell what’s ‘right’ in these situations and how can you help him or her come to an ethical decision?

Telling right from wrong

Two months ago, I was working with a client facing a major strategic decision. They were trying to determine what to do next and I offered advice and suggestions based on my experience and insight. I was confident that my experience of similar situations had helped them come to the right decision.

But this was experience-based, not guided by a process. I started wondering how companies could know what’s right and make the correct decision without previous experience to guide them?

So I started looking into ethical decision-making models and quickly found an excellent scholarly article by Dr. Shannon Bowen. Dr Browen’s paper titled, ‘A Practical Model for Ethical Decision Making in Issues Management and Public Relations’. provides an excellent model for ethical thinking based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

(I’m going to summarize Dr Bowen’s key ideas below but I would strongly recommend that you read her original paper for more detail.)

For companies, ethical decisions often lie in the gray area where public expectation and business strategy intersect. With these competing interests at play, Immanuel Kant’s approach to ethical behavior provides a useful framework for us to approach decision-making.

Kant believed that rational intellect, guided by deductive reasoning, should be the source for moral decision-making. That is opposed to decision-making based on rules prescribed by religion or lawmakers. (If you want to read more on Kant’s thinking, I like ‘The Introduction to Kant’s Ethics’ by Roger Sullivan.)

The more I read Dr Bowen, the more I realized that this was something that I could turn into a practical model: something we could apply in the real world and bring value to our clients.

The four pillars

The model we’ve adapted mirrors Dr Bowen’s and is based on four pillars of Kant’s philosophy: autonomy; the categorical imperative; ethical considerations; and symmetrical communications. You don’t need to understand these in detail to use the model but the key concepts are as follows:

Autonomy – Ethical decisions can only be made by an autonomous, rational decision-maker. The decider needs a clear slate, one free of outside influences, personal desires, or a fear of negative repercussions when making decisions.

The categorical imperative – The categorical imperative states: an ethical decision is universal and applies consistently across times, across cultures, and across societal norms. Part of this is also the principle of reversibility. Would the decision-maker see the merit of a decision and feel it was ‘right’ if he or she were on the receiving end?

Importantly, Kantinan thinking judges morality by the motivation, rather than the outcome. To Kant, an ethical decision is one taken for the right reasons, irrespective of the outcome. Even a decision with a positive outcome but made for the wrong reasons would be amoral in Kant’s view.

Ethical consideration – You also need to think about duty, intent, and dignity and respect as these apply to key constituents in the situation. Consider each key group involved in the situation and ask yourself the same three questions for each:

  • Am I doing the right thing? (Duty)
  • Am I proceeding with morally good will? (Intent)
  • Are dignity and respect maintained? (Dignity and respect)


Symmetrical communication – Finally, the decision must be based on symmetrical communications. A truly equitable, ethical decision will be based upon a two-way conversation where external parties are not just consulted but their input is included in the factors under consideration.

Ethical decision making – the Cliff Notes Version

I appreciate that this is a lot to take in and you may feel that the last thing you need is another process. However, as I noted, we’ve edited and modified Dr Bowen’s model to develop a ‘Cliff Notes’ version based on four questions.

  1. Are we acting autonomously, free of eternal influences?
  2. Is what we are proposing applicable universally and would we accept this solution if it were applied to us?
  3. Are we doing the right thing, with the right intent for all those involved, to show them respect and to maintain their dignity?
  4. Are our decisions based on a two-way conversation?

While you are advising or counselling your CEO, ask yourself these four questions when you are evaluating their decisions and giving feedback. If you can answer in the affirmative, then you should be confident that you are making ethical decisions and that you will end up doing the right thing. If not, raise your concerns as you would with anything else that worries you in the decision-making process.

Once the hard work of tackling these big, ethical decisions is taken care of, you will find that a lot of what follows is a matter of tactics.

Remember, this is not a tool to employ in the heat of the moment. In the 24-48 hr period while a crisis is burning, you need to focus on your mission, values and generating speed of trust. However, in the critical moment before a crisis, or the deliberate decision-making that follows, ethics must be at the forefront of your mind.


Ethics: an important consideration but not the only consideration

Importantly, ethical decision-making doesn’t mean that you ignore the cost or effect of your decisions on your company: your employees and shareholders are important stakeholders too.

What it means is that you respect public expectations, understand what stakeholders are concerned about, treat them with respect and dignity, and then make ethical, moral decisions for your company. That way, you know that what you are doing is right and just, and you can explain this with a clear conscious.

Dr Bowen provided an excellent, relevant and highly practical piece of work to prompt this thinking and you should read the original paper to learn more. I have only scratched the surface of what is a deep topic but I hope that has given you a systematic model for ethical decision-making.

Now, instead of everyone sitting on a conference call, offering opinions and insights that are without any sort of logical decision-making tool, you can provide the CEO and team with an ethical lens through which they can view their decisions. Then you can get on with doing simply what’s right.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.