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Ethics in Business should Enable Employees to Voice and Enact Values-Based Decision-Making

Values-based Leadership creates an Ethical Organization Culture

Business ethics training in the workplace misses the mark. Traditionally, it looks at the “why” of making ethical decisions but ignores the “how” to get it done. In the real business world, employees may fully understand why it is necessary to act ethically but fall short on having the skills to actually act in accordance with ethical values. This is where the values-based leadership method, Giving Voice to Values, comes in.

Giving Voice to Values (GVV) was launched by Mary Gentile through the Aspen Institute and Yale School of Management and now is based and supported at Babson College. It initially targeted primarily MBA students and for executive education. Subsequently, the GVV curriculum was adopted by faculty in a broad spectrum of business courses. GVV also is used by companies such as Lockheed Martin in its ethics awareness training program. There have been over 740 pilot studies on all seven continents and it continues to grow.

The GVV methodology is a paradigm shift in the way ethics professors like me approach teaching ethical decision-making to business students. It shifts the focus away from awareness and analysis to action by addressing a series of questions for protagonists after identifying the right thing to do including: How can they get it done effectively and efficiently? What do they need to say, to whom, and in what sequence? What will the objections or push-back be and, then, what would they say next? What data and examples do they need?  

GVV enables company ethics trainers to focus on the “how” to implement an ethical decision after the “why” (i.e., philosophical/ethical reasoning) has been completed. This does not mean the why is ignored. Instead, workplace discussions extend the boundaries of ethical decision-making beyond the why and it mirrors some of the ethical pressures that financial and other professionals face in the workplace to voice one’s values when they know what the right thing to do is but are having difficulty transitioning from knowledge to action.

GVV helps to develop the skills to identify the “reasons and rationalizations” expressed by detractors (disablers) that a protagonist needs to counter and recognize those who might provide support for voicing values (enablers) by scripting powerful and persuasive responses to those who use reasons and rationalizations to block ethical action.

An appealing aspect of GVV is that its application in real-world situations is designed to ward off the need for whistle-blowing by engaging in the give and take of communication that is essential to convincing others of the rightness of one’s position. Its application in accounting ethics, my primary field of expertise, is particularly appealing because, if successful, the likelihood of accountants having to go outside an organization and informing external parties such as the SEC about financial wrongdoing is lessened.

GVV workplace scenarios should place employees in situations where they need to make a choice, effectively communicate it, stand up for their values, and reflect on the outcome of having voiced values. It begins with the assumption that employees want to do what they think is right, but they need to develop the skills to communicate “powerfully and persuasively in the face of strong countervailing organizational or individuals norms, reasons and rationalizations.” To work through the process the following questions are posed:

  • What are the main arguments you are trying to counter? That is, what are the reasons and rationalizations you need to address?
  • What is at stake for the key parties, including those who disagree with you?
  • What levers can you use to influence those who disagree with you?
  • What is your most powerful and persuasive response to the reasons and rationalizations you need to address? To whom should the argument be made? When and in what context?

Being ethical in the workplace is not easy. It requires the ability to act with integrity and be willing and able to counter arguments or rationalizations that we face when we speak out against unethical practice. Some of the most common arguments include

Expected or Standard Practice: “Everyone does this, so it’s really standard practice. It’s even expected.”
Materiality: “The impact of this action is not material. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.”

Locus of Responsibility: “This is not my responsibility; I’m just following orders here.”

Locus of Loyalty: “I know this isn’t quite fair to the customer but I don’t want to hurt my reports/team/boss/company.”

Isolated Incident: “This is a one-time request; you won’t be asked to do it again.”

Our ability to convince others to set aside the reasons and rationalizations expressed to counteract our values and positions can be met with a sort of “cognitive dissonance” because the individuals whose minds we are trying to change may be protecting their own prior decisions. They may be closed-minded to any suggestions to do otherwise because it makes them uncomfortable with their previous choices.

Cognitive dissonance has an important role in the GVV technique. According to Festinger, cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (dissonance). People try to reach an internal consistency between their beliefs and behaviors. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. It is the voicing of values that helps to align beliefs with behaviors.

GVV is based on committing to a set of core beliefs (values), expressing them in the workplace, and acting on them when the going gets tough. It starts with understanding which values are most important. There are core values for any business including honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, reliability, responsibility, accountability, fairness, caring/compassion and transparency. Once employees become attuned to these values, a self-understanding of what motivates them to action, they are better able to evaluate whether their positions are consistent with those values. Accordingly, they then can take the steps necessary to reduce or minimize any cognitive dissonance. This enables them to be more effective in voicing their own values and provides ammunition to counter reasons and rationalizations.

Ethics training programs in business have missed the mark because they fail to engage employees in the give and take of action-based role-play scenarios. Employees need to learn how best to voice their values. It starts with being able to develop scripts to provide a tool to effectively argue for one’s ethical position and convince others to support that position. Scripting provides a foundation to counter the reasons and rationalizations we often hear that form the basis of pressure in the workplace to do something wrong – an act that benefits top management and the company – even when it conflicts with basic ethical values. It simulates the give and take of real ethical dilemmas in the workplace and better prepares employees to act on their values.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage on April 15, 2015. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at