To understand ethical conflict resolution we have to consider the word conflict in isolation and consider what it means. The most likely interpretation of conflict might be that of disagreement with a professional colleague or disagreement with a customer or client; this interpretation is quite valid.
Another less obvious conflict that can occur, that was alluded to earlier when we talked of bribery and the potential to think there might be a loophole in the wording of IEEE’s Code of Ethics document, is the conflict that can arise within a professional in relation to work or activities that present themselves that are not necessarily conflicts in the obvious sense with other people, for example: an individual may be presented with a conflict within themselves in respect of accepting a gift from a client or they might have a conflict in being asked to carry out an action that would conflict with instructions already given by another individual.
It is these more subtle conflicts that often prove to be the most challenging and it is resolving them ethically that is to be aspired to.
Let us consider the more typical example of conflict, disagreement, with a colleague. When a situation such as this develops a good starting point might be to try and resolve the conflict directly with the colleague – there are various ways that this can be done: being self-effacing, admitting own errors, compromise, and so on.
These three methods are also very good at preventing conflict before it has even begun if we know that we might have to approach a colleague to discuss an issue that may exist with their own actions as the act of acknowledging your own errors, as an example, might give the individual more ‘space’ to deal with any observations that might follow of their own errors.
Now let us consider the subtler example of internal conflict. Consider the situation in which an individual might be responsible for the acquisition and purchase of new computer screens for the company that they work for. There may be an ethical clause in their employment contract to always act in a financially responsible fashion to protect the interests of the share-holders of the company.
One way of interpreting this might be: when getting prices for equipment, always go with the cheapest prices. Now the problem that we might have is that the cheapest monitors might be manufactured by a company that has a very questionable workers’ rights record, which we happen to be aware of. What do we do? This is where our consideration of our ethics in relation to social duty might come in to play in that in choosing the right supplier to purchase from we would consider more than just price – worker rights being one area that might be ethical to consider.
What about the share-holders? Well this might be a difficult one as the share holders might not share the ethical considerations that we might as a professional as the purchase of more expensive equipment might result in reduced profit for the company. It is important to appreciate that sometimes no matter what we do there will be conflict even when we apply techniques of conflict resolution. Of course, if we were to go with the cheapest supplier regardless of their worker rights we may in fact damage the company profit as if society at large is becoming more switched on to the concept of ethical companies then they may punish the company by not purchasing or using its products or services – now we are back to the stock holders being unhappy again, but this time because we were arguably not ethical!
In the previous paragraph conflict was identified from a number of different perspectives: internal conflict within the professional, conflict with share holders and conflict with society. If we had developed the above example further we would easily find many other individuals and groups that might be affected by this apparently simply decision about who supplies the monitors.
It is important to understand that conflict can occur on many levels and with many people or groups that we may or may not actually have any direct contact with as a singular entity, that is, we will likely never come in to direct contact with the whole of society but we might very well feel its collective disapproval when it elects to no longer use the company and our employment is terminated.
Thus, while there are various methods of standard conflict resolution, some of which we listed above, and that we can easily search for information on online, it should be understood that ethical conflict resolution is, of itself, a somewhat more complex form of conflict resolution that considers not just the individuals in direct contact but all of the various individuals and groups that might be involved from the colleague, to management, to shareholders and investors, to family and friends, to legislation, politics, and society.
These individuals and groups are all stakeholders, so to speak, and effective ethical conflict resolution takes them all in to account. Remember though, the approximate quote, popularly attributed to Abraham Lincoln that says:
You can fool [please] some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool [please] all of the people all of the time.