The Foursquare Protocol

Managing Ethical Decision Making

The Foursquare Protocol - Managing Ethical Decision Making

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Use this simple four-step process to guide your ethical decisions.

When was the last time you faced an ethical decision at work? Perhaps you felt that it wouldn't hurt to "round up" your team's sales figures, for example. Or you might have turned in an overly optimistic progress report, because you were confident that your team could make up for lost time.  

Making ethical decisions can be difficult. But, as a manager, your choices will likely impact your whole team. Reputations or careers could be on the line. 

Also, the distinction between right and wrong isn't always clear. These "gray areas" can make it harder to know what to do. 

In this article, we examine how you can use the Foursquare Protocol to make impartial, objective decisions. It is designed to help you to avoid unconscious bias, by focusing on facts rather than assumptions.

What Is the Foursquare Protocol?

The Foursquare Protocol is a process for making ethical decisions. It was created by lawyer Stephen Goldman, author of the 2008 book, "Temptations in the Office." 

It's a four-step process for deciding what's truly relevant and significant in any decision-making situation, so that you can clearly see the best way forward.

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.

Many managers choose to make ethical decisions intuitively, by applying common sense or trusting their "gut feeling."

But this means that their decisions may be subject to unconscious bias, or based on an incomplete understanding of the situation. The Foursquare Protocol aims to minimize the effects of these "blind spots."

How to Use the Foursquare Protocol

The Foursquare Protocol gives you a framework that you can refer to when you're faced with a difficult ethical decision.

Imagine, for example, that one of your team members has been accused of bullying. Let's explore how to use the Foursquare Protocol in this situation.

Example:

You've received a complaint about a junior manager who reports to you. He's been accused of bullying, putting unnecessary pressure on his team members, and forcing them to work long hours. 

On the other hand, his team has hit some challenging targets, which he was specifically brought in to achieve. Before the complaint you had even earmarked him for possible promotion. 

1. Dig Into the Facts

This may seem like an obvious place to begin, but it's essential for understanding the whole story.

Goldman asserts that the quality of your decision depends entirely on the facts you've gathered. The more information you have, the more prepared you'll be to make a good decision.

So, spend time collecting and organizing the significant details of the situation. This will make it easier to see if you've missed anything, and give you substantial evidence to refer to later as you consider your choices.

Example:

You begin the decision-making process by gathering as much evidence as possible. You speak to the alleged victims of the bullying, and to others who may have witnessed it. You also speak to the manager who's been accused, and let him give his side of the story. 

These could be difficult conversations, as the people concerned may be upset, angry or defensive.

2. Examine Individual Responses to Past Situations

Investigate how similar issues in the past were handled within your organization. How did managers resolve these problems? What actions were taken? Were penalties or punishments imposed?

Tip:

If a situation like this has never happened at your company before, then you may need to think on your feet, and be prepared to set a precedent for the future.

If you are unsure what to do, don't be afraid to seek help or legal advice from your HR department. They may have experience of dealing with this sort of situation.

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

But take care not to repeat bad practice. Just because a decision is "in line with company policy," doesn't mean it will always be the correct one ethically. 

Example:

You discover that a similar allegation of abuse of power was made a few years earlier, involving different employees. In that instance, the senior manager formally reprimanded the bullying junior manager and filed a report. 

If you fire your own junior manager, instead of taking formal disciplinary action and filing a report, you may create an inequality. Your team will wonder why the two people were treated differently. How will they know what to expect in the future?

But you need to assess the severity of your current situation. If there have been more incidents this time around, or the behavior was more aggressive, you might be justified in taking a harder line.

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3. Gauge Similarities With Past Situations

Now that you know how similar situations have been handled in the past, weigh up the similarities and differences between your case and any earlier ones. No two problems are identical – and the differences, especially, can have a major impact on your decision.

Pay close attention to legal factors, as well as ethical ones (and remember that employment law may vary in different countries). Be sure to avoid discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, education level, and seniority, for example. 

Also, consider your relationship with the people involved. Is your friendship, or lack of friendship with them, affecting your judgment?

Be aware, too, that attitudes toward what is and is not ethical change over time. In the #metoo era, for example, it's no longer acceptable to "turn a blind eye" to employees who engage in sexual discrimination or harassment. 

Example:

You find that the employee who was reprimanded in the earlier case had behaved improperly on two occasions – and both instances were directed toward the same team member. 

But in your current situation, your report has acted aggressively toward several team members, and it's happened far more often. What's more, one of the accusers is a close friend of yours.

How does this affect your decision?

4. Analyze Your Decision-Making Situation

Look closely at your ability to make a fair and balanced decision under this particular set of circumstances. Then consider the following three approaches:

  1. Determine whether you have any self-interest in the action you're considering. Will you personally gain or lose from your decision? 
  2. Analyze the action you're considering as though you'd been on the receiving end yourself. If you were one of the team members who'd been bullied by the manager in our example, would you consider a reprimand to be enough? Or 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.

    But don't become too emotionally involved in the situation. If you do, you'll risk making a decision on the basis of emotional bias, rather than logic.

  3. Examine what your morals guide you to do. Your core values, and those of your organization, are important here – don't just rely on your instincts. 

Example:

If you choose to reprimand the manager who's accused of bullying rather than fire him, is this because it's the right thing to do? 

Or, are you doing it because he brings in some serious revenue, from which your bonus benefits?

Warning:

Before you take disciplinary action against any employee, always discuss the situation with your HR department and the appropriate senior managers.

Potential Pitfalls of the Foursquare Protocol

The Foursquare Protocol only works if you have a firm commitment to uncovering the truth, behaving ethically, and making impartial decisions. 

It would be easy for an unethical manager to tick off the four steps, while actually making a decision based on their initial assumptions, even if they were biased and misguided.

Speak up if you suspect misuse or abuse of an ethical decision-making process, even if it means telling more senior people that they're wrong. Such abuses can only weaken the integrity of your organization.

Tip:

For more tips on ethical decision making, see our articles on Blindspot Analysis, Ethical Leadership and How to Be Ethical at Work.

Key Points

Making a fair and ethical decision can be difficult, especially in serious situations where jobs and reputations are at stake. 

The Foursquare Protocol can help you to analyze a situation logically and objectively, and to avoid assumptions or unconscious bias. It comprises four steps:

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

This process can guide you toward the right decision, but always consult your HR team or senior managers before taking disciplinary action.

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Comments (5)
  • 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
    Yolandé
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Bigk,
    You have a point there ... that action needs to be taken, regardless of the issue/problem!
    ethics and issues are like any other issues and problems and need action taken.


    So, using the foursquare protocol can prove useful in any decision making process!!

    In regards to your question about HR laws, I suggest you consult a legal expert or a legal website in your country. Because of the different practices in different countries, this is an area that it is hard to offer advice or tools.

    Good luck.
    Midgie
  • Over a month ago bigk wrote
    Hi

    I see no issue with this, ethics and issues are like any other issues and problems and need action taken.

    All situations are individual though and should be considered as individual issues.

    I do not have all relevant HR ethics and laws currently in force or available. Could I ask for your guidance on this.
    I know how to get and search for some guidance on this already but would like your comments.
    I am also reading some items on this currently.

    Thanks

    Bigk
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