The Foursquare Protocol

Learning to Manage Ethical Decisions

The Foursquare Protocol - Learning to Manage Ethical Decisions

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The choice between right and wrong can be a "gray area".

Imagine this scenario: your best sales representative has a reputation for being a "ladies' man."

You're fine with what he does in his own time, but he's starting to bring his behavior to work.

You've seen him flirting with many women in the office – touching them casually and making sexually suggestive comments – and they're not happy about his advances.

You've warned him, and stated your disapproval several times, but he seems to ignore it.

You're worried that if he continues, it may lead to a sexual harassment lawsuit.

On the other hand, his sales numbers are very high. Firing him would hurt your department's earnings – and you, and your team, would probably lose that big year-end bonus.

How do you make this type of tough ethical decision?

In the business world, we sometimes face difficult situations like this. The choice between right and wrong can be hidden in a "gray area," making it hard to know what to do. So, how do we make the right choice?

Stephen Goldman, a lawyer and author of "Temptations in the Office," created the Foursquare Protocol – a tool that helps us make ethical decisions. It's a four-step process for determining what's truly relevant and significant in a situation, so you can clearly see the best choice.

The steps are as follows:

1. Dig into the facts.
2. Examine individual reactions to past solutions.
3. Gauge similarities with past situations.
4. Analyze your decision-making situation.

From "Temptations in the Office" by S. Goldman. Published by Praeger, 2008. Reproduced with permission.

How to Use the Tool

The Foursquare Protocol helps you respond correctly to many ethically challenging situations. Follow these steps next time you're faced with an ethical problem at work:

Step One: Dig Into the Facts

This might seem like an obvious place to begin, but you'd be surprised at how often people don't take time to ensure they have all the facts.

Why is it important to do this? By presenting the facts, it's easier to see if you've missed anything. Goldman points out that the quality of your decision depends entirely on the facts you've gathered. So, the more information you have, the higher the chance you'll make a good decision.

Take some time to collect and organize all the significant details of the situation. This will give you substantial evidence to refer to as you consider your choices later.

Step Two: Examine Individual Responses to Past Situations

Take time to investigate what has happened at your organization in the past. What previous situations have been similar to yours? How did managers resolve these issues? What penalties or punishments did the company give out?

This step is important because it ensures that you act fairly, and in a way that's consistent with past practices.

Let's go back to our example: imagine that your company faced a similar sexual harassment situation a few years earlier with someone else. In that instance, the manager formally reprimanded the worker and filed a report. If you fire your sales rep, instead of taking formal disciplinary action and filing a report, you may create an inequality. Your team will wonder why the two workers were treated differently. How will they know what to expect in the future?

Analyzing past situations will help you develop an appropriate response that's not only right, but fair and consistent with what the company has done before.

Step Three: Gauge Similarities With Past Situations

Now that you have some examples of past situations in your company, weigh the similarities and differences between your case and the others. No two situations are ever identical – and the differences, especially, can have a major impact on the outcome of your decision.

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For example, imagine that the worker who was reprimanded in the original sexual harassment case had behaved improperly on only two occasions – and both instances were directed toward the same woman. In your current situation, your sales rep has acted inappropriately with several women, and it's happened several times every week.

The law may require you to be very careful here. Look closely at factors such as race, gender, age, education level, and seniority. While you certainly don't want to give one person special treatment over another, you don't want to risk a discrimination lawsuit at the same time.

Also, consider your relationship with the person causing the problem. Is your friendship, or lack of friendship, affecting your judgment?

Step Four: Analyze Your Decision-Making Situation

Look at your ability to make a fair and balanced decision under this particular set of circumstances. Consider these three approaches:

  • Determine whether you have any self-interest in the action you're considering. Will you personally gain or lose something by your decision? For instance, if you choose just to reprimand your flirting sales rep instead of firing him, is this because it's the right thing to do – or because you really want him to continue working, so that you can earn your year-end bonus?
  • Analyze the action you're considering as though you are on the receiving end yourself. For example, imagine that you're one of the women who's been harassed by this sales rep. Would a reprimand be enough? Would you want him to be fired?

    Putting yourself in the other person's place can give you the empathy you need to make the right decision. It can also help you separate yourself from any personal gain you might receive from the outcome.

  • Examine what you believe your morals guide you to do. How are your instincts telling you to proceed?

Once you've completed all the steps of the Foursquare Protocol, you should have a clear idea of what the right decision is. Of course, talk this through with HR and with your boss to make sure there's nothing you've missed.


For more types of common decision making problems and how to avoid them, see our article on Blindspot Analysis.

Key Points

Making a fair and ethical decision can be difficult, especially when the situation is complicated. A tool like the Foursquare Protocol can help you analyze the problem carefully so that you make the right choice.

Start by gathering the facts. Then investigate to see if any similar situations have happened at your organization in the past. Compare the similarities and differences of those earlier cases with your current situation. And lastly, analyze your own ability to evaluate the alternatives without bias. By following these four steps, you'll be in a good position to make an objective and balanced decision.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (7)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi bj1974,

    Thank you for the comment.

    I'm not sure I agree that this is such a horrible example. Ethics involve the implementation of morals, and not wishing to punish others for one person's moral deviation, at least in my understanding, would be an ethical dilemma - at least for me personally.

    I agree that there should be some HR policies in place to help resolve personal harassment situations. I feel that your last sentence actually addresses the ethical perspective, from your viewpoint. Your actions are driven by morals rather than by laws.

    Thank you again for sharing your take on the issue.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago bj1974 wrote
    This is a horrible example. You suggest that because your team might not receive a bonus if he gets fired that we have an ethical dilemma. Want of money is not an input into an ethical decision. You also state that this man is doing this to multiple women, creating a negative corporate culture. The fact that you would even remotely consider letting a harasser (whom you h ave actually witnessed harassing) stay in your employ says a whole lot about how far we have to go as a culture. If that's my company, and I see him making unwelcome passes at women who clearly aren't into it, he's fired and out of my building by 3:00. Done.
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Under the fourth point in the Foursquare Protocol it says something very important:
    'Determine whether you have any self-interest in the action you're considering. Will you personally gain or lose something by your decision?'
    From quite a young age I was really aware of this and to question my own motives. Why did I want to make a certain decision? Was there anything in it for me? And if so, what? Was my decision made with integrity, authenticity and ethically?

    Unfortunately it doesn't mean that I have never made bad decisions - I've made terrible ones! But it certainly prevented me from making even worse decisions.

    When it comes to disciplining employees, this tool is extremely valuable to help you take your personal feelings towards a person out of the picture - whether those feelings are positive or negative.

    Has anybody else had any experience in using this?

    Kind regards
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