Guidelines for working ethically with stakeholders | Skillfully

Advice: Working ethically with stakeholders

Greg Fried
10 June 2024

Whatever organisation you’re in, you’ll encounter potential clients, partners or other stakeholders that make you uneasy about the ethics of working with them. Maybe they’re in a harmful industry, or have a questionable record, or represent a dubious government, or for some other reason they lead you to ask: Should we be selling our products to these people? Should we be accepting their funds or services? Should we be dealing with them at all?

 

These are often tough choices with high stakes. On the one hand, your business or NGO may be tempted by a lucrative new market, lower cost resources, funding opportunities, and more. On the other hand, you’ll have concerns, including the prospect of risking your reputation, undermining the values of your organisation and its people, or simply acting unethically.

 

Such situations therefore call for careful, thorough reflection. To support this strong level of ethical attention, it’s important for your organisation to have a stakeholder ethics framework: a systematic guide to ethical decision making about which stakeholders you will work with, how, and why. The ethics framework includes the organisation’s procedure for handling these questions, and the principles and considerations to take into account.

 

Rather than being one-size-fits-all, stakeholder ethics frameworks should be developed in a way that suits your organisation’s aims, values and environment. If you and your colleagues are considering creating a stakeholder ethics framework, here are two thoughts that may be useful.

 

Firstly, when you’re deciding on the principles and other considerations to include in your organisation’s stakeholder ethics framework, it’s helpful to ensure balanced reflection, so that no significant perspective or requirement is missed. For the sake of balance, you’ll likely want your set of considerations to:

  • Be sensitive to your organisation's particular values and aims, while incorporating relevant ethical concepts and theories more generally
  • Promote the thriving of your organisation and its people, while respecting the interests of all stakeholders
  • Take into account the diverse views of a broad range of team members, while maintaining overall coherence and consistency
  • Be as straightforward as possible, without seeking formulaic solutions
  • Drive towards firm organisational decisions, while catering for individual disagreement.


Secondly, when you’re working on your organisation’s procedure for making ethical decisions about stakeholders, it’s best practice to keep a record for reference. Whoever is involved in reflecting on ethical issues, and whatever discussions take place, you’ll want to record the decision, including a summary of the evidence and reasoning behind it. Some benefits of maintaining a record are:

  • Consistency. Your organisation will find it easier to decide consistently in similar future circumstances.
  • Efficiency. Instead of rethinking similar cases from the basics, you can more quickly apply or adapt prior reasoning and decisions about ethical business practices to relevant new situations.
  • Conscious development. Your organisation’s ethical thinking is likely to evolve over time, in the face of fresh thinking and evidence. To understand your ethical path and make sure you’re headed in the right direction, it helps to see where you came from as well as where you’re going.

 

With a balanced stakeholder ethics framework and a growing record of decisions, your organisation can make strong choices, continually refining its ethical reflections as it adapts to new circumstances.

 

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Dr Greg Fried offers Ethics: Working Well With Stakeholders, in which he guides delegates to develop a stakeholder ethics framework suited to their organisation's context and purposes.

 

Greg draws from a range of approaches as a facilitator with a Philosophy PhD, business ethics expertise, entrepreneurial experience as Skillfully's co-founder, and a background working with organisations on five continents.