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Ethics: What's Your Role?

In my 40 years of teaching business ethics, I've come to believe that understanding the roles we play in life is the key to ethical living. If we truly understand the obligations that arise from those roles, we can better define ethical principles to guide our behavior.

If we truly understand the obligations that arise from those roles, we can better define ethical principles to guide our behavior.

So what is a role? A role is a specific relationship that we have to others. Some roles are thrust upon us (e.g. son or daughter) and others are taken on voluntarily (e.g. employee or parent). Far from being static, the roles we play are constantly changing. The parent of a teenager becomes the parent of an adult. The print reporter becomes an online journalist. We change careers and become a lawyer or teacher.

Each role can also be understood by identifying the unavoidable ethical dilemmas which characterize that role. A parent must provide just enough discipline for a misbehaving child. A lawyer must protect the confidential information of clients, but may need to share some of it to receive advice or counsel. 

So how do we pin down what our roles are and what they entail? In my experience, asking “Whom do I have an obligation to?” is the best place to start. To understand more about the role, I can ask: “What do I owe each person?” I can also ask: “What do they have a right to expect from me?”

We hold many roles at once, of course, and their obligations can overlap and conflict, forcing us to make hard choices. 

We hold many roles at once, of course, and their obligations can overlap and conflict, forcing us to make hard choices. 

Consider this classic business ethics case. Your boss tells you, a manager, in confidence that a number of employees will soon be laid off. On this list is a friend in the process of signing a mortgage. What do you do?

This is an excellent case because it captures the essence of roles. On one hand, you have an obligation to live up to your boss’ trust, but on the other, you have an obligation to look out for the best interests of your friend.

There are no easy answers when roles come into conflict. But you can prepare yourself for these dilemmas by proactively understanding your roles and obligations, before a problem appears.

Take some time today to reflect on the roles you play every day. What do you owe each person you deal with in each role? What problems present the most ethical challenges? What principles will help you handle these role-related problems where there arise?

Business, Ethics
relationships,personal growth,Illuminate

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