Tools for Ethical Business Decisions

Most Americans view “business ethics” as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  Many people working in the landscape industry may not think about ethics as all, being too busy submitting bids and getting work done.  However, ethics is a vital issue for the reputation of our industry as a whole and for each business owner and worker in the field.  Hawaii is a special place and it deserves our best – including ethical behavior.


The people who run businesses generally don’t sit down and think “I’m going to do something unethical today.”  We’re all too busy trying to meet deadlines to usually even stop and think about ethics.  Instead, companies tend to embark on an unethical slide one decision at a time.  It could be padding the hours on a time-and-materials invoice, saying that company workers are qualified to do work they have no experience in, or failing to mention a prior verbal commitment when a new customer representative takes over a project.  There’s usually some sort of rationalization:  “I’m just looking out for our stockholders,” “our workers can read up on that type of work before the job starts,” or “everyone does it.”  Once a business culture develops that condones these types of practices, the employees follow the example of the owner, their bosses, and their coworkers; and soon enough, everyone at that company is doing it.  Employees who buck the culture may face losing their jobs or other repercussions.  Most people just keep their mouths shut and go along with the flow.  As one unethical business practice becomes acceptable, the next one doesn’t seem so bad – and the next one and the next one.  For some companies, their unethical business practices end up destroying the company with a bang: think Enron and WorldCom.  Others may never recognize the consequences of their actions – the disgruntled customers who never call them again or the black mark that they leave on the industry’s reputation.


One of the difficulties in making ethical decisions is that the world isn’t black-and-white but many shades of gray.  While some choices are obvious, there are other situations that present ethical dilemmas.  Ethical tools have been developed to help people make these sorts of decisions.  A few of the more commonly referenced ones are listed here.  You can find more at the websites noted in the sidebar or by doing a search on the Web.


Tools for Facing Ethical Dilemmas


Tool 1 – The Mom Test

If you followed the course of action that you are considering, would you tell your mother what you did?  What would she think of you if she found out?


Tool 2 – The Newspaper (or TV) Test

If what you are about to do was accurately reported on the front page of the news along with the reasons for why you did it, how would you feel about it?  Would you wish you could undo it?


Tool 3 – The Smell Test

Does the situation smell?  Does it give you an uneasy feeling in your stomach that something is not quite right?


Tool 4 – The Other Person’s Shoes Test

How would you feel if the roles were reversed?


Tool 5 – The Child Test

What would you advise your child to do in your situation?


Tool 6 – The Principle of Harm Minimization

If harm is inevitable, what can you do to minimize the amount of harm?

Doing what’s right is not always easy.  Each of us is responsible for our own decisions, for which road we choose to follow.  In the words of Robert Frost from his poem, The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Carol Kwan is the President and Certified Arborist of Carol Kwan Consulting LLC.


Oregon DPSST Ethics Bulletin Volume 11,

Stephen Jodis, Introduction to Ethics PowerPoint presentation, Armstrong Atlantic State University,

Numerous links to many ethics related websites are available at:

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About the author  ⁄ Chauncey Hirose-Hulbert

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