The World of Work Project

The Foursquare Ethical Decision Model

The Foursquare model says that to reach a decision on an ethical situation one must first: 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 designed to help individuals 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.

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. Facts can be obtained directly from observation of evidence if possible and, failing this, through conversation and investigation.

2 – Understand previous ethical decisions

It’s important that decisions are consistent with prior organizational responses, so the next step is to research how previous ethical decisions were made. What were the processes, principles and guiding beliefs? How were the decisions received by the organization and its employees?

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

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 bring to the decision making process to ensure they achieve an ethical outcome.

The World of Work Project View

This model derives from the legal approach to the application of ethics. Overall 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 as 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 decisions in similar situations. While this makes sense and follows legal guidelines, times change, what’s acceptable changes and there are instances where past decisions are flawed and shouldn’t be repeated. 

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

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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