Jamie Heck, University of Cincinnati
Kim Bernie, University of Cincinnati
Angie Cook, University of Cincinnati
Katelyn Talbott, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
In any professional environment, individuals encounter situations that warrant ethical decision-making to determine potential avenues for problem-solving and to identify appropriate next steps. All too often, our academic advising team members must address complex circumstances that include an element of ethical decision-making: for example, how to address when an error negatively impacts a student's experience; balancing institutional policies that do not always meet student needs; or realizing when communication around expectations did not result in the desired student outcomes. As supervisors and administrators, providing a framework to address these issues when they arise can foster a consistent, reliable, and just approach that will also elevate the quality and integrity within the team, while reducing the amount of time allotted toward troubleshooting such situations. These efforts can positively impact stakeholders' experiences. Even if there is an acknowledged need and an immense desire among supervisors and administrators to help team members cultivate ethical decision-making skills, there still could be a lack of certainty of the appropriate approach to effectively instill ethical decision-making within our teams to help maintain quality and integrity. The following paragraphs address how supervisors and administrators can educate and empower team members to foster the development of ethical decision-making skills.
The fact is that all of us working in higher education, regardless of our respective role, will encounter situations that create challenges in maintaining ethics within our organization. All employees should approach their role and responsibilities from an ethical lens. Advising administrators and supervisors have a responsibility to cultivate an environment that educates and empowers team members to employ ethical decision-making into the varied experiences of their role. To do this, they must provide a solid foundation for employees to acquire the skills to both identify and navigate challenging ethical dilemmas. Strategies that will help build a foundation to effectively instill ethical decision-making within teams are outlined below.
1. Identify and Integrate an Ethical Decision-Making Model Within the Team Environment
There are a variety of ethical decision-making models. One model that resonated with the authors was created by Hodges and Steinholtz (2018). This model provides clear steps and associated factors to consider as one examines a situation through an ethical lens. The steps in this model help team members to examine a situation by gathering information and considering potential solutions. The model created by Hodges and Steinholtz poses thoughtful questions to guide persons through the ethical decision-making process. Reflection is embedded in this model and is a necessary component to ensure that individuals make a well-informed decision based on the respective circumstances and information available and are able to identify next steps. Reflection will be discussed further in another strategy. Admittedly, there are many other ethical decision-making models that could guide practices within a team. It is imperative that departments identify a model that is the best fit for their team.
2. Provide Learning Opportunities That Will Allow Team Members to Practice Their Ethical Decision-Making Skills Within a Safe Space
For team members to develop their ethical decision-making skills, they must practice with real-world examples. One way to do this is by reviewing case studies with employees. Team meetings allow employees to have an opportunity to safely engage in conversations about how to address real-world situations. They can interact and learn from one another. It will also give administrators and supervisors insight into where gaps exist in their employees’ knowledge and skills so that additional resources can be provided. Think-pair-share and role-playing are other learning activities that could be helpful to employees as they explore ethical decision-making. A daily team huddle or weekly team check-in could provide avenues for employees to gain insight into active ethical decision-making situations and how colleagues are navigating these situations.
3. Be Available as a Supervisor
As administrators and supervisors, creating a culture of openness and transparency will encourage team members as they explore ethical decision-making. It is pivotal to offer guidance to team members throughout their learning journey. Establishing trust is a vital component of the relationship and will help team members build confidence in their ability to make decisions when they encounter ethical dilemmas. Unless you actively create a culture that is open and transparent, you might have a team member attempt to resolve the situation independently without consultation or withhold information out of fear of perceived consequences.
4. Empower Team Members to Navigate Their Own Ethical Decision-Making Journey
Advising administrators and supervisors routinely gravitate toward the role of fixer as they encounter varying situations. Strengthening and fine-tuning ethical decision-making skills takes time and experience. It is important (and necessary) to allow team members to navigate their ethical decision-making journey. A little guidance from a supervisor along the way is okay. However, advising administrators and supervisors should refrain from automatically assuming the role of the fixer. It is hampering the team member’s ability to address difficult ethical decisions independently and providing the crutch that some so desperately seek out as an avoidance mechanism.
5. Allow Time for Reflection
Ethical situations can be complex and difficult to manage. In addition, it is possible (and quite likely) that one is in a position where they are forced to make decisions without a full picture of the ethical dilemma. Decisions must be made with the information that is obtainable. It is essential that a well-informed decision is made based on the information available. With this said, it is impossible to come out of every ethical dilemma completely unscathed. There will be situations that result in unintended consequences. The outcome can be difficult and unpleasant to navigate. It is the approach a person employs to address the ethical dilemma as well as the circumstances that transpire thereafter that really speak to one’s ethical decision-making aptitude.
The ethical decision-making journey warrants a pause for introspection. Leaders should encourage team members to take time for reflection. Processing the situation is an essential component of the learning process. Once a situation has concluded, conducting a retrospective meeting will provide leaders and team members with a delegated setting to engage in a conversation that allows for reflection of the situation in its entirety. Reflection helps team members to process the learning experience resulting in professional (and personal) growth. From the successes to the opportunities for improvement and the missteps that one would prefer to forget, this session will allow participants to carefully ponder the details of the ethical situation. There is significant value in reflection. This is where team members explore the ethical situation holistically in a safe environment, while honing their skills and developing a deeper awareness of themselves and others. This discussion will foster confidence, empowerment, and value among team members.
6. Supervisors and Administrators Should Be Aware of Their Own Approach to Ethical Decision-Making
Personal strengths and limitations can impact the way a person approaches ethical decision-making. Acknowledging the lens through which they examine ethical issues will help supervisors and administrators to better understand the way ethical dilemmas are addressed. This can also provide insight into how people prioritize various factors when an ethical dilemma is encountered. For example, a team member might be a self-proclaimed rule follower. When they engage in ethical decision-making, they could prioritize adhering to policy even though the policy is widely described as outdated and not student-centered.
7. Ethical Dilemmas Should be Considered as Part of a Bigger Picture
When making ethical decisions, consider the bigger picture from a philosophical and practical standpoint. How does the decision align with the overall mission, vision, and goals of your department, college, and higher education institution? Are your enacted and espoused values consistent? Even though the immediate situation was addressed, what factors contributed to this ethical dilemma? How do decisions made impact other areas or create a ripple effect with other issues? Identify the real issues that caused the ethical dilemma and recognize the consequences of ethical decision-making. For example, an institution decides to expand their program/course offerings administered online as an avenue to increase enrollment and generate additional revenue. The institution does not have the adequate infrastructure to support the influx of online learners. Specifically, they cannot provide adequate support services and resources to promote student success. Still, the institution moves forward with the plan to grow enrollment in online programs and courses. As a result, there is an increase in the percentage of withdrawals and non-passing grades within the online learner student population. In addition, there is an uptick in the number of students placed on probation or eligible for dismissal. This increases the length of time and educational costs for students to complete their degree. This is an ethical dilemma that has a multitude of consequences and warrants reconsideration of next steps prior to moving forward.
Higher education professionals should challenge all employees to reflect on the presence of ethical decision-making within their role and responsibilities. What current situations require ethical decision-making? How will ethical decision-making be integrated into daily responsibilities? How will opportunities to practice ethical decision-making be incorporated into a team’s professional development?
As support is given to team members during their own ethical decision-making journey, there are a few words of wisdom that can be shared with them. Information may be limited and/or decisions must be made within an abbreviated period. Acknowledge the potential for these constraints, but do not allow these limitations to prohibit action or cause stagnation. As with any skill, it will take time and practice for a person to perfect their ethical decision-making skills. The journey could be confronted by uncomfortable circumstances that make a person question their ethical decision-making potential. Grace and patience are necessary as one accumulates experiences and develops skills to fine-tune their approach to ethical decision-making. Finally, how will this situation promote professional (and possibly personal) growth? Identify what caused the ethical dilemma in the first place and determine how a comparable situation can be prevented from occurring moving forward. This is where opportunities might exist to act, such as creating policies, modifying communication plans, and engaging in professional development training, to reduce the possibility of a similar situation in the future.
In summary, administrators and supervisors have a responsibility to prioritize the development of ethical decision-making skills among all team members. Ensuring that all team members within a department are well-equipped to effectively navigate ethical dilemmas will only enhance the quality of the stakeholders’ experience. Supervisors and administrators should continue to educate and empower team members to foster the development of ethical decision-making skills.
Hodges, C., & Steinholtz, R. (2018). Ethical business practice and regulation: A behavioural and values-based approach to compliance and enforcement. Bloomsbury Publishing.