Designing for Ethics

The corporate world has many mechanisms in place to prevent, assess, and address ethical violations in the workplace. But do these mechanisms really meet the needs of an employee facing an ethical dilemma? At our 5th Annual Forum in Chicago, we dove into the innovative field of design thinking in search of an answer. 




Originally used as a way to think about improving products, design thinking has recently received much attention—from Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, and others—for its ability to suggest innovative business processes. Design thinking’s central concern is understanding the needs of the user. By eliminating frustrating or overly complex features, design thinking makes users’ experiences more intuitive and comfortable.

For our 2016 Annual Forum, we wanted to explore how we might use design thinking to address ethical dilemmas. We gathered a team of experts in the field of design thinking along with group of sixteen managers whose duties included ethics and compliance. The team then worked through a design thinking exercise.

By eliminating frustrating or overly complex features, design thinking makes users’ experiences more intuitive and comfortable.

Our exercise followed a four-step process based on the Stanford Design School model: 1.) Understand the experience of an ethical dilemma, 2.) Determine which aspects of the experience to improve, 3.) Develop creative ways to improve the experience, and, 4.) Construct a workable approach. (For the presentation slides see the PowerPoint below.)

Step 1: Understand the experience of an ethical dilemma

Prior to attending the forum, each participant conducted an interview with an employee who had recently faced an ethical dilemma. Interviewees gave detailed accounts of their experiences, fully describing the setting, the people involved, the ethical dilemma, the resources and tools available for addressing that dilemma, and the outcome. As the story unfolded, interviewers noted what the interviewees were experiencing at critical points in the story, grouping this information into an empathy map of what their interviewee said, felt, did, and thought.

As we viewed the team’s results, several common themes emerged. First was the experience of uncertainty. Employees navigating an ethical dilemma are often unsure how they should label the situation. They wonder, “Was this an ethical breach, or not?” They are also unsure what to do or even if any actions are appropriate. As a result, they will be slow to disclose what they know until they understand what will happen.

Employees navigating an ethical dilemma are often unsure how they should label the situation. They wonder, “Was this an ethical breach, or not?”

The second theme that emerged was anger coupled with a desire to withdraw. There was a tendency toward disbelief and asking, “How could this have happened?” Interviewees expressed anger towards those they hold accountable. They became suspicious of the motives of others and indicated that they felt anxious, stressed, guilty, helpless, and awkward. They tended to interpret the situation in a way that reduced their sense of responsibility.

Finally, the third theme was a desire for resolution. Those seeking a resolution tended to pursue more information, consider confronting offenders, defend a point of view, and explore ways to solve issues. When they failed to find support, they felt sad, betrayed, offended, and disappointed.

The participants then examined the experience of an ethical dilemma as it tends to unfold for the user, a process called journey mapping. The team identified an ethical incident and constructed a timeline to include critical events leading up to and following the incident. This map included precursors to the event such as power dynamics, relationships, and culture as well as how the employee considered and responded to the incident. The team described the complex environment and uncertainty surrounding the incident as a “swirl” that confuses our ability to make an ethical decision. Taken together, the empathy map and the journey map allowed the team to understand the experience of an employee going through an ethical incident at work.

Step 2: Ask, “What about the experience might be improved?”

In the next stage of the process, we identified aspects of the employee experience that, if modified, would decrease or remove pain points. The goal of this step is to create one or more “how might we…” statements that can direct possible improvements by reframing pain points as areas of opportunity. The “how might we…” statements are much like directional arrows. They indicate where we might look for a solution, but they don’t provide every detail. The next step in design thinking is idea formation, a process often called ideation.

Step 3: Ask, “What ideas could we implement to make the improvements?”

There are many ways to generate ideas, but for this step in our process, we chose brainstorming. When you are brainstorming, you should always keep two things in mind. First, be clear about the intent of your brainstorming session. This is where your “how might we…” statements play an important role by giving participants a specific question about which to brainstorm. Second, make sure you tap into the knowledge and creativity of the participants as completely as possible. We met this second requirement by generating and sharing ideas, building on the ideas of others, and then refining those ideas.

Step 4: Find potential, workable solutions that can be tested

The creative refinement of ideas does not end with brainstorming. Thus, the last activity of the workshop involved prototyping. A prototype is a visual or experiential manifestation of one or more of the ideas generated through brainstorming. Often the best ideas are generated by combining brainstormed ideas and figuring out ways to make them work in an organizational context.

A continued commitment to empathy is essential.

The last ingredient to successful design thinking is testing the prototype. But it can be difficult to find the best way to help employees navigate an ethical dilemma. A continued commitment to empathy is essential. This is an iterative process; success requires a willingness to try and fail, perhaps even several times, as you refine your approach.


Key Points

Companies strive to keep their employees well informed about ethics. They provide specific trainings, messaging, hotline support, etc. But design thinking raises an important question: Can traditional trainings really meet all of an employee’s ethical needs? Actual ethical dilemmas are confusing and uncertain. Training can never be 100% effective in helping employees know when a breach is a breach, and what to do about it, especially when that breach is embedded in a “swirl” of other considerations.

The effectiveness of supports such as hotlines or ombudspeople may depend how much the employee trusts that his or her organization cares about ethics and will protect employees who take actions to support ethical behavior. The user focus that is at the core of design thinking provides a different and highly productive way to approach the practice of ethics and compliance.


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