‘Defining moments’ by Joseph Badaracco, Harvard Business Press

Ben Crowley2 Blogs Leave a Comment

Although this book is by a Harvard Professor, it is refreshingly practical, short and easy to read, much more so than the Seglin’s book. Badaracco shares Seglin’s view that ethical issues can only be decided in the context of each company and situation but provides an effective conceptual framework and more helpful examples. There are excellent three case studies that are introduced early on and then recur as the various themes are introduced.

Badaracco sees decision making around ethical issues as being a balance between work choices and life choices, which will be revealed and tested in ‘defining moments’. He rejects suggestions that such decisions can be treated as a choice between right and wrong; on the contrary, it is more likely to be ‘right versus right’. This is illustrated by the dilemma in one of the case studies – do you sack an employee who is performing less well and working less hard than other colleagues, even though by normal standards that performance would be acceptable? And do you take into account that employee’s personal circumstances and the motivation of the rest of the team? He makes the point that managers are right in the middle of such dilemmas and it is almost impossible to avoid ‘dirty hands’.

Another case study is about a black man who finds out that he has been chosen to make a pitch to a major client because he is black, thus gaining favour compared to his peers. Other examples are more corporate and larger scale; for example do Hoechst carry on with abortion related products even though there are boycotts of products and unwanted publicity?

For this type of dilemma the author suggests three sources of information and supports for judgment:

• The company’s mission/values statement
• Legal responsibilities
• Moral philosophy

The other distinctive feature of this book is that the author goes back to philosophers of the past for guidance on the third of these sources; to John Stuart Mill who suggested the criterion should be the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’ and less helpfully to Immanuel Kant who believed that ‘moral law and duty’ should prevail. He also quoted Plato and his pupil Aristotle who believed that ethical issues were more emotional than factual, that decisions had to ‘feel right’ to be ethically justified.

This insight was the origin of what the author and other writers on ethical issues call the ‘sleep test’ – can you sleep at night after making this decision? Another version is – can you look yourself in the mirror?’

Perhaps the best advice for managers is to read books like this and establish principles in your own mind so that you are prepared to make the ‘most right’ choice when ethical dilemmas arise. If it is only possible to read one book on this topic, this practical, readable book would be my choice.

Click here to buy the book:

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