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Ethical Decision-Making: Cases in Organization and Leadership

reviewed by Yinying Wang - February 22, 2021

coverTitle: Ethical Decision-Making: Cases in Organization and Leadership
Author(s): Patricia A. Mitchell
Publisher: Myers Education Press, Gorham
ISBN: 1975500830, Pages: 208, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

Ethical Decision-Making: Cases in Organization and Leadership, edited by Patricia Mitchell, invites readers to wrestle with ethical dilemmas as an organizational member and as a leader. It prepares readers to become ethical decision-makers in a variety of professional environments.

The book is composed of six sections, each devoted to ae specific type of organization: (1) K–12 education, (2) higher education, (3) public and nonprofit organizations, (4) government and law enforcement, (5) corporate America, and (6) health industry. An overview of ethical decisions in these types of organizations gives lay readers a window into the different, sometimes overlapping, nature of ethical decisions in these organizations. In educational organizations, the values of being a servant, social justice-oriented leader are advocated. In corporations, there is tension between an organization’s social responsibility and stakeholders’ expectations regarding organizational performance and profits. In the health industry, the Code of Medical Ethics offers ethical guidelines. If the book is considered as a collective endeavor, each of the six types of organizations can be thought of as a distinctive strand. Mitchell expertly weaves together these six types through a collection of cases that expose readers to ethical dilemmas. Mitchell begins each section with an overview of ethical decision-making in different types of organizations, followed by a wide range of cases of ethical dilemmas. At the end of each case, a list of questions is provided to engage readers in wrestling with those ethical dilemmas.

The collection of diverse, intellectually engaging cases in the book offers rich resources for those who aspire to make ethical decisions in organizations. Mitchell’s book also offers an appreciation of the intricacies in an ethical organizational life. Moral values are the beacons that guide us as we navigate the inherent uncertainty in organizations. Very often, following your moral values and doing the right thing are also the unpopular, difficult, and anxiety-provoking thing to do. The intriguing cases make the book highly readable. It never gets bogged down in jargon. The cases show how seemingly abstract ethical decision-making can be understood in concrete, practical terms. The book is never boring.

Yet there are missed opportunities. The overview at the beginning of each section is too simplistic sometimes. Whether one behaves ethically is contingent on the interaction between individual traits (e.g., moral values and personality traits) and social context (e.g., transparency and accountability of decision making; Trevino, 1986). The role of power in ethical decision-making in organizational context deserves more attention. Take Case Study 5.7 “What’s the Harm—To Share or Not to Share?” as an example. Do you speak up or stay silent when your superior demonstrates ethically questionable behavior? It is easy for an outsider to say that it is the right thing to risk your professional reputation and career advancement for the greater good (i.e., the long-term benefit of the organization). But why do we have so few whistleblowers, and many people turning a blind eye to their superior’s unethical behavior? The power dynamics in organizations sometimes implicitly keep leaders’ unethical behavior unexposed at the expense of organizational interest. Maybe a more helpful question to ask is: What kind of organizational structure and policy can we set up to protect those whistleblowers and encourage them to speak up?

What is also missing in each case study is a discussion section that introduces major constructs and theories of ethical decision-making, followed by a summary of the major takeaways. For example, the discussion of Case Study 1.1 Principal for the Day could introduce the role of emotions in ethical decision-making (Wang, 2020). One of the theories is the dual-process model of moral decision making (Greene, 2013). The first process is driven by humans’ automatic emotional responses to make deontological judgments of categorically right and wrong. Another process is driven by cognitive capacity to engage in moral reasoning. More important, the two processes in the dual-process model of moral decision-making do not carry equal weight. The emotion-laden process is activated faster than the cognitive-driven process, thereby wielding more compelling power in moral decision-making (Greene, 2013). An elephant-rider analogy has been used to illustrate the dual-process model: The emotion-laden process is the elephant, and the cognitive-driven process is the rider (Haidt, 2012). The rider’s (our conscious reasoning) job is to serve the elephant (automatic emotional responses): The rider sometimes reins in emotions when they run wild, such as assuaging our anger and suppressing the desire of revenge; other times, the rider serves the elephant by providing post hoc rationalization. A case to support the theory is Case Study 1.1, in which the school principal justified her decision to create unfair resource allocation to other schools by the post hoc rationalization that the teachers and students in her school would benefit from her decision.

Case Study 1.2 could introduce the construct of procedural justice, which refers to the fair processes of allocating resources (Colquitt et al., 2011). Procedural justice is what the school principal violated when she chose to hire someone related to her husband’s law firm as a teacher over a fully qualified candidate who had already been working in the school. The discussion could go even deeper, taking note of a growing body of social and behavioral research on the consequences (e.g., demotivation and retaliation) of unfair procedures on organizational members.

Ethical decision-making is a broad, complex topic. Such is the richness and variety that readers are left wanting more. For readers wanting an enriched understanding of ethical decision-making, this is a judicious, humble place to start.


Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C., & Ng, K. Y. (2011). Justice at the millennium: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 425–445.

Greene, J. D. (2013). Moral tribes: Emotion, reason, and the gap between Us and Them. Penguin Press.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House.

Trevino, L. K. (1986). Ethical decision making in organizations: A person-situation interactionist model. Academy of Management Review11(3), 601–617.

Wang, Y. (2020). What is the role of emotions in educational leaders’ decision making? Proposing an organizing framework. Educational Administration Quarterly, 0013161X20938856.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 22, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23607, Date Accessed: 3/4/2021 3:58:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Yinying Wang
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    YINYING WANG, Ed.D., is an associate professor of Educational Leadership in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at College of Education and Human Development in Georgia State University. Her research interest intersects technology, decision making, emotions, neuroscience, and social network analysis in educational leadership and policy. In addition to teaching educational leadership courses, she also teaches social network analysis. Her background includes medical doctor, classroom teacher, and school administrator.
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