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What is Collegial Ethics?

Guidelines for Supporting Colleagues in the Workplace

Collegial Ethics (CE) proposes that we support and be fair to colleagues, not only in the day-to-day routine, but also in difficult situations when appropriate. Michael Kuhar first coined the term "collegial ethics." He did so because while interactions with colleagues is essential, little or no training in our attitudes or interactive techniques exist. Kuhar points out that collegial ethics also means that you will try to accept your colleagues'  transgressions with forgiveness and take the time to mentor and help those who need it.

Supporting colleagues in everyday life with its routine ups and downs can be relatively easy, although supporting those in trouble is more complicated. The facts may indicate that a colleague’s position is not supportable so we should withhold stating false opinions and speak the truth of our opinions.

When someone is in trouble, it is natural to turn away and stay out of it. This is often a survival instinct and manifestation of acting in our self-interest. Kuhar suggests the reason to invest in CE is a good one. It improves our quality of life, both professionally and personally, whether we are the ones giving or receiving support.

When colleagues are suspected of wrongdoing, we should consider: Will there be a backlash if we give support? Are there short-term or long-term benefits to us for support? What will we lose if support is not given?

A good perspective is to follow the basic rule of ethics: First, do no harm. We would not want to support a colleague whose actions harm others any more than we would want others to act this way. Still, we have much to offer a colleague faced with an ethical dilemma and may be able to create a framework for handling workplace conflict by relying on a decision-making model.

From my perspective, CE is simply a part of an overall ethical decision-making system. Ethical decision-making entails: identifying facts; identifying stakeholders; considering alternative courses of action; and deciding what is the most ethical action. CE requires that we assess whether a colleague's intended action is supportable in that it shows empathy for others and does more good than harm.

If a colleague is involved in a conflict situation, the model works just fine. Conflict resolution should be managed in an effective way, with fairness to all, and not impair organizational culture. Conflict resolution requires careful listening, respectful decision-making, and finding a win-win situation. However, the premise that we should exercise CE suggests that we place the interests of our colleague ahead of other interests. I agree but there are limits to the support.

CE is a good addition to what is already taught through ethics training and can be easily incorporated into an organization’s code of ethics. The key is to develop broad guidelines on CE and create hypothetical situations to operationalize what may happen in your unique workplace environment. Importantly, limits of behavior should be set and implications of wrongful support identified. It is important to hold those responsible for decision-making accountable for CE.

As Kuhar points out, some skeptics might argue that an all-too-often excess in collegiality prevents us from getting to the bottom of bad behavior and fixing responsibility. But, that is a failure of enforcement, not a failure of ethics, which is a set of guidelines for behavior.  CE holds that a focus on and study of both appropriate and inappropriate collegial behavior will help us more readily make the distinction between the two.

When confronted with a situation involving a colleague, some judgment is needed. Ask yourself the following questions: Should I support or not support my colleague? How will I know what to do and why? ? What are the potential consequences for my actions both short-term and long-term? Will support jeopardize my position in the organization -- with fellow employees? If I give support to my colleague in this instance: How would I feel if other employees find out about my actions? How would I feel if my decision is reported on the front pages of the local newspaper? Will I be proud to defend my actions?

Supporting colleagues may be a difficult task if the facts are unclear and stakeholder interests not fully identified. We shouldn’t support colleagues in a vacuum. Our decisions impact others in the organization. Still, CE can create a workplace environment of respect, fair treatment of all, and responsible leadership. Organizations enable CE through compassionate listening, understanding, and supportive behavior.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 16, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www.ethicssage.com.

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