Perceptions of Ethical Behavior

By AnnMarie Marlier,
Executive Director,
Business Ethics Alliance

Over the past few weeks I’ve encountered a few ethical dilemma scenarios that really gave me pause as I thought through them. They were not life or death scenarios and could easily have been making something out of nothing, or maybe they were something and had yet to be fully realized. As I pondered each of the scenarios, what came to mind is that the ethical implications depended on not only the perceptions of the parties involved, but also the intent and actual outcomes.  

Let’s use this as an example – a person wants to make a donation to their favorite charity.  However, they wish to remain anonymous. Fairly easy, right? The donation can be listed as an anonymous donation and few would question the ethics of this giving. That same donation could be made to honor another and still be anonymous. Still fairly easy, right? Most nonprofit organizations have defined rules for giving and the IRS has its defined tax code. Now, however, let’s say that the same person donates a significant amount to an organization and does it in someone else’s name without telling that other person. Is this ethical? Maybe, maybe not.  

It might be ethical if there is a pre-established understanding between the two parties and there is a history of this arrangement being used in the past. However, there are financial implications for any donation. If there is no understanding, and one person actually makes the donation, but the other person named actually wants the tax credit because it was made in their name, what is the more ethical course of action? 

As good as the intention may be, intent alone is not always enough when it comes to ethics.  Remember the dilemma about someone stealing medicine for a family member because they are desperate and cannot afford the medication? Or how about in the movie “Aladdin,” where Aladdin steals food to give to other children? Or in the legend of Robin Hood where stealing from the rich to give to the poor is justified because the rich have been taxing the poor too heavily to build the treasury (mostly for the personal gain of a few).  Stealing is still stealing but perceptions of the reason for and impact of stealing shift our ethical judgment.  

Another “dilemma” to consider is that of an employee who has unlimited vacation benefits available and uses a large chunk of the time available, but does not engage in, contribute to, or produce the work expected. On one hand, the vacation time is unlimited and available to the employee — no real ethical issues there. However, the vacation time likely comes with expectations that when an employee takes the vacation time, the time will be taken judiciously and work production will be consistent with stated expectations. That employee still needs to remain engaged with the rest of the team. Now we start to see conflicting ethical perceptions. In this scenario, a compounding factor could be the reason for taking the large vacation time. Is the person ill or caring for an unwell family member and has no other means of support to care for them? Or, is the person simply taking a very long vacation and has been abusing the unlimited vacation time privilege?   

When considering varying, and sometimes conflicting perceptions of what is the “right” ethical behavior, we need to consider several factors: context, historical occurrences, intent, and outcome(s). While we are talking about ethical behavior … Our next Signature Event occurs on August 3rd and focuses on artificial intelligence (AI) and the future of business. Our featured speaker is Dr. Kathy Meier-Hellstern, the principal engineer and director in the Responsible AI and Human-Centered Technology organization in Google Research. When it comes to AI, perceptions matter and so does your participation in the dialogue.  To register, head to our website,  

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August 03, 2023:
Summer Ethics Luncheon
Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Business

October 05, 2023:
15th Anniversary Celebration Ethicspace Conference

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