Doing the Right Thing: 4 Steps to Ethical Decision-Making

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here, continuing the focus on decision-making. Here is a quick recap of the decision-making process I put together some 35 years ago:

  1. Identify and clarify the issue. If it is a preservation-of-life event, act immediately (#8). Short of that, identify what needs to be decided.
  2. Do I have time to think? If so, move on to #3. If not, hopefully you picked this up on your risk assessment and through constant training have learned how to best act in this situation.
  3. Can I handle this event? If so, move to #4. If not, get it to someone who can handle it and follow through to make sure it got done.
  4. What is the policy of our agency re: this event? If policy exists, follow the policy. If there is no policy, refer to the mission statement of your organization and make sure your action is consistent with this statement.
  5. What is our past practice in this type of event? You may not have handled this type of event before, but maybe someone in your organization has. Consistency is critical.
  6. What are the ethical issues involved in this event? We must be concerned not just about doing things right but doing the right thing right.
  7. What are the consequences of my actions? Smart people consider consequences before they occur.
  8. Make and implement your decision. Remember it is not too late to go back to #1 to make sure you are still headed in the right direction.
  9. Document as necessary why you did what you did.
  10. If you learned something new, share it with your peers.

In the last article, I focused on the importance of consistency in decision-making—not just individual consistency but also organizational consistency. Step 5 of the process is to ask, “How have we done it before?” If you are properly using your discretionary time, you will ask this question. And please remember that if you want to deviate from the norm, you must have specific, articulable facts to justify that deviation.

Continuing on, Step 6 of the process is the “ethics” component. You have checked policy and past practice and the next query is, “Am I doing the right thing here?” It is important to note that doing things right is not enough—you must do the right thing right! You must incorporate ethics into your decision-making process.

To me ethics is black and white—the gray areas are very rare.

In my live programs I spend a lot of time on ethics—which (along with transparency) may well be the hottest topic in law enforcement today. There are no more secrets in police operations; every cop should know that everything we do must be done at the highest levels of ethics and integrity. That goes for everyone in public safety, too, from corrections to EMS to the fire service and 911 dispatch.

Allow me to digress for just a moment. One would have thought, post-Rodney King, every cop would know everyone has video capabilities and that everything done by every cop in America has the potential to being videoed. Surprisingly, that was not the case.

Then you would have thought when cops started wearing BWCs (Lieutenant, that means body-worn cameras), every cop wearing a BWC or working around another cop wearing a BWC would know that everything they do has the potential for being videoed. More surprisingly, that was not the case.

Then you would have thought when government surveillance cameras and business cameras and residential doorbell cameras became virtually ubiquitous, every cop would know that everything any cop does has the potential to be videoed—and once again that ended up not being the case.

Do not get the wrong message here! I am not suggesting we behave properly and ethically only because there is the high probability of a permanent video record of our actions. I am suggesting any cop or firefighter or EMT or corrections officer who is thinking about “crossing the line” should realize there will be a record of that transgression popping up downstream. Everything done in public safety operations has got to be done at the highest level of ethics and integrity!

I have attended many training programs that addressed the “ethics” issue. Too many instructors talk about the black-and-white issues—what is clearly inappropriate and what is not—but then follow-up by talking about the “gray areas.” Perhaps I will get some emails after you read this piece, but to me ethics is black and white—the gray areas are very rare.

Here is the four-step approach I use when considering whether my behavior is ethical.

#1: Always obey the law and follow the policy

If you have the law and policy on your side, you are probably in good shape. Women and men who write the laws and the policies in your state do so with a bent toward ethics, so always follow the law or policy. Of course, I am presupposing you have good policies in place that are consistent with and complementary to the involved law. If you are a Lexipol client, I can assure you that you do.

Now having said this, smart people move on to step two of this analysis. Just because the law or policy says we can do something does not necessarily mean it is the right thing to do. Stupid people stop at step one: “The law said I could do it! The policy said I could do it! So I did it!” That line of thinking is a ticket for tragedy; I could bore you with a thousand examples of how that myopic thinking can get you in trouble. Smart people move onto step two of this analysis.

#2: If it smells bad, it probably is bad

Even if your planned behavior is consistent with law and policy, it might not be the right thing to do. It is essential we give it the “smell test,” both personally and externally. How it will read in the paper tomorrow is a necessary consideration.

However, this only applies if you have discretion in what you are doing. In the world of police operations, some of your functions are mandatory, as indicated by the language “you shall.” Often these mandates extend beyond doing something to doing it in a certain way. If you are involved in such a matter, follow the letter of the law or policy regardless of the smell.

Any cop or firefighter or EMT or corrections officer who is thinking about “crossing the line” should realize there will be a record of that transgression popping up downstream.

Read the above paragraph again please. In line one I mention the word discretion. Here is a big hint for you to consider: You can only exercise discretion if you have discretion. If the law or policy mandates or prohibits certain behaviors, you have taken away that discretion. This is especially important for those of you who write or modify policies. I could tell you thousands of stories about the overuse of the words shall and must and never in policies. More on this in a bit, but for right now, always run your planned behavior through the smell test.

#3: When questioned after the fact, always be up front and honest

America and Americans are very forgiving, but only if you are up front and honest about what really happened. Public safety jobs are some of the most complex in the world, and mistakes are going to happen. Don’t compound the mistake with a cover-up.

And here I go again with another digression, something I have learned over the last 45 years: You can do incredibly stupid things in this job and remain employed so long as you are up front and honest. Never, never compound the mistake you have made with a cover-up. The quicker you raise your hand and say, “I screwed this up,” the better off everyone is going to be. Again, I could tell you a thousand stories about how minor mistakes end up in termination—and even criminal exposure—because someone lied about what really happened.

If you have not yet read Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi (former NYPD executive who ran their Internal Affairs unit for years), you should. I guarantee you will enjoy this book both in terms of writing style (he must have been a real cop at one point in his career) and what you’ll learn about the volume and variety of things NYPD cops have done over the decades.

#4: Ethical actions speak louder than ethical words

You are the leaders in your department and our profession and you must set the proper example. Public safety work is a noble endeavor. Please take it seriously. We all need to act like the professionals we are even when no one is looking and there is no chance our behavior will be noticed.

Well, I am way, way over my word count on this piece, so I will wrap it up and continue in this vein of thinking in our next visit together. Until then, here is a …

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Do a keyword search in your policy manual for the words shall and must. Whenever you see a word that mandates a certain type of behavior, please read the entire paragraph and ask yourself, “Is this what we really want to say?” If your answer is yes, then leave the policy as is. But please recognize how these words can create trouble for your personnel down the line. For example, when you have a policy that says, “Under no circumstances should any patrol vehicle be driven in excess of 10 mph over the speed limit,” that is a problem lying in wait.

Thanks for reading this, and for all you are doing to make things better in our world!

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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