The foursquare ethical decision model says there are four steps to making an ethical decision. These are: gather the facts, understand previous decisions, consider similarities to previous events and assess and overcome any personal interest or bias.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The Foursquare Ethical Decision Model

The foursquare protocol is a four stage process. It helps individuals and leaders make ethical decisions in the workplace. The stages are: gather facts, understand how previous ethical decisions were reached, look for similarities to previous ethical situations and assess and self-interest or bias.

Once those actions have been completed, a decision can be made as to how to respond to the ethical situation.

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1 – Gather the Facts

Whoever is making the decision should focus on objective facts and gain as many of them as they can. It’s important to separate evidence and fact from opinion. Directly observing evidence is a great way to obtain facts. failing this, conversation and investigations and also helpful.

A magnifying glass over the word facts - representing "gathering facts", the first stage of the foursquare ethical decision making model

2 – Understand Previous Ethical Decisions

Decisions should be consistent with prior organizational responses. Given this, next step is to research how previous ethical decisions were made. What were the processes, principles and guiding beliefs? How did the organization and the employees feel about the decisions?

3 – Assess Similarities to Past Events

Stage three is comparing the current ethical decision with past situations. Similarities and differences should be noted. The decision maker needs to be clear on whether there are any prior situations that have already been decided on that are particularly similar to the current one.

4 – Assess Yourself

A monkey looking in a mirror representing "assessing yourself", the last stage of the foursquare ethical decision making model
Take a good look in the mirror before making a decision.

The last stage a decision maker needs to under-take before making any decision is to assess themselves. The decision maker needs to understand and overcome any personal interest or bias that they have. If they can’t do this, they can’t achieve an ethical outcome.

Learning More

Making decisions is difficult in part because of the cognitive biases and dual approaches to thinking we all have. Of course, it’s even harder when it comes to ethical decisions. This is in part because ethics and morality are to some extend constructed and fluid.

You might be interested in learning more about personality and character ethics in work. Similarly, our posts on trust and corporate ethical development might be interesting.

You also might enjoy this podcast in which we look at ethical decision making in leadership, particularly in the 3rd sector:

The World of Work Project View

This model derives from the legal approach to the application of ethics. It suggests that organizations should adopt a fairly legalistic approach to the way they make decisions in relation to ethical situations. While we think this might put some people off, we agree.

In our experience ethical situations in work usually result in “grievance”, ”hearing” or similar tribunal type events. In our view the adherence to a defined policy or process in relation to such events is advisable. This is because doing so it ensures a consistency and provides guidance on best practice for the managers involved.

Our one area of slight reservation regarding the model is around alignment of current decisions to previous, similar decisions. While this makes sense and follows legal guidelines, times change. What we think is acceptable changes over time. What was OK in the past, might not be OK any more. Social changes are constantly bringing things like this to life and we need to make our decisions based on the current context.

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This post is based on original work by Stephen Goldman. You can read more in his book: “Temptations in the Office: Ethical Choices and Legal Obligations”.

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