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Ethics Ops
Strategies for Effective Ethics

Smell Test - Identify Ethical Issue

HOW TO IDENTIFY AN ETHICAL ISSUE AND USE THE SMELL TEST

© 2012  J. Brooke Hamilton III, Ph.D.
 
Ethical judgments are made about actions or situations that are right or wrong, good or bad.  One clue that an action or situation needs an ethical rather than simply a business judgment is that the action or situation involves actual or potential harm to someone or some thing.  Another clue would be that there seems to be a possibility of a violation of what we generally consider right or good.
 
How to use the smell test
Another good way to identify when an ethical issue that needs to be addressed is to use the “Smell Test: “What would the action or situation we are considering smell like if we read about in a front-page news article or in a popular blog?  Would we be comfortable reading a Wall Street Journal story that our company was doing this or letting the current situation continue for long? Would I be comfortable explaining it to my spouse, or my grandmother?”
 
The strengths of the smell test:  
  • It focuses us on what other ethical people in the society would think.  It prevents us from taking special advantages for ourselves.
  • It recognizes that morality is about what others think as much as it is about what I think.
  • It enlists the emotion of shame, a powerful motivator to be sure we are getting this right.
 The weaknesses:
  • The smell test is only as good as the society we live in.  The society may be blind to the ethical dimensions of an action or situation, may accept unethical actions as ethical, or be divided on whether the action is right or wrong.
  • As the olfactory image reminds us, living with bad smells or unethical conduct for a long time may dull a person’s ability to notice them.
  •  It tells us that an action is an ethical issue but not why it is right or wrong.  Knowing why an action is right or wrong can help explain it to others.  Knowing why it is wrong can help to modify the action to make it right.  To determine why, we will have to move beyond the smell test.
The Smell Test is familiar ground in most businesses and is a good place to begin.  It is a “quick and dirty” test for deciding if something is an ethical issue and useful because brand name and a person’s reputation are important in business.
 
SEE CASE EXAMPLES: 
  1. "Less Sugar" Marketing  
  2. Phantom Expenses  
 
To go directly to the ethical theory discussions, go to Ethical Decision Making at the Markkula Ethics Center site.  See also What is Ethics on the Markkula Ethics Center site.
 
For a page of quick links to move between ethical theories and steps to operationalize these theories, return to the Markkula Links page.

Download a PDF of this page.
 
 
This page was last modified on June 7, 2012 
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