Ethics in Delegation

A single day consists of 86,400 seconds, 1,440 minutes, and 24 hours. That seems like a long time for a human to be productive, and yet it feels like we are always running out of time. And that feeling is common among leaders, bosses, chairmen or anyone you can think of who may have a million things on their mind. However, when it comes to doing things, there’s only so much that one can take on in a single day. Which is why people delegate, and how leaders learn to use this skill to help their team grow. While delegation may be considered an ethical responsibility to self, the organization, and the employees there could be some ethical issues that can arise with delegation.

There are several controversies about the ethics of delegation. There are a number of questions that can come up when considering the ethics of delegation. For example, when delegating a task, the intent matters. Are we delegating a task because we want it off our plate or because we are contributing to someone else’s learning? Many a time, managers will delegate tasks that they do not find interesting or engaging. This kind of “grunt” work is de rigueur in many industries. While some aspect of it can be justified as learning for newcomers, in many cases it can lead to disorganized distribution of work, lack of communication and frustration among the team members.

Done right, delegation can motivate and empower teams, leading to higher-quality decisions and actions. Unfortunately, delegation has another side to it — one that has the potential to create a serious gap between decisions and moral responsibility. When delegating a task, who are the key stakeholders? What constitutes effective and adequate communication? When something goes wrong, who is responsible?

Trust Dilemma

I am often reminded of this quote by Eric Edmeades, “Delegation is the passing on of actions, actions not the passing on of responsibility.” How can I delegate with responsibility and accountability? When the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal hit in 2015, VW boss Martin Winterkorn once described by Forbes as ‘a hands-on boss with an exacting eye for detail’ apparently knew nothing about years of systematic cheating. At the time Volkswagen was fined millions of dollars in compensation, dealers lost confidence & credibility, and worse, the customers lost their trust in the brand. How much of that was due to improper delegation, I wonder.

Fairness Dilemma

I often volunteer as a parent during school events. The school delegates tasks based on a good faith basis, trusting that the assigned task will be completed. During these events, a small example of an ethical dilemma is to complete the assigned task without doing any special favours to my child. An extra burger, an extra point, or an extra freebie – it doesn’t matter what the favour is. What matters is that I complete the task with fairness. But who decides what is fair? Am I being unethical if I cheer louder for my child, than other children? Am I being fair if I give special consideration to a child with special needs?

While delegation is important in a business setting and can lead to costly mistakes, in the field of Nursing, delegation of tasks is crucial and can have life and death implications. Understandably there is substantial research to support the principles of ethical delegation in nursing. According to Sharon Beasley and Saundra K. Lipe, there are some common ethical principles. These include the principle of autonomy, beneficence, justice, fidelity, and confidentiality. They should be foremost in our minds when delegating tasks.

Simply put, when delegating a task, leaders should strive to understand whether the team has the knowledge and the know-how to complete the given task. Even the mundane, everyday tasks deserve clear and concise communication. As a leader, I might consider a task to be simple or boring because I have done it for many years. This does not necessarily apply to the person who may be doing it for the first time.

During delegation, it is also important to have a common understanding about the level of authority, the ethical standards and responsibilities that accompany the task, as well as the applicable constraints to ensure accuracy and transparency.

At the end of the day, the pertinent question is how do Delegation and Ethics go hand-in-hand? Is it enough to delegate a task and forget about it? Or do I have a responsibility beyond the outcome? Do we explore this topic further through a workshop, a self-help manual, or intuition? Let The Bento Coach know your thoughts.

Research support by Ms. Maahi Patel.