Recognizing the Reality of Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace

signIt seems like every other month we’re hearing about a new ethics scandal in the media. Volkswagen was recently discovered for engineering their motors to give deceptive readings on fuel emissions tests, and now 7-Eleven is under the spotlight for exploiting and underpaying workers in many of its franchises. [1] Hearing these reports, it’s easy to condemn the bad behavior of others and comfortably assert, “Well I would certainly never do something like that!” And besides, what are the odds that you would ever be wrapped up in some corporate scandal or fraud? Actually, the odds aren’t nearly as small as you might think. Ethical dilemmas in the workplace happen all the time, regardless of the industry you work in, the company you work for, or your role within that company.

Just last month, I read over 100 ethical dilemmas experienced by students that are currently in the workforce. Not only were there diverse types of dilemmas, but they also came from every industry imaginable: construction, financial advisory, accounting, tech, plastic surgery, and so on. The more experiences I read, the more I realized that the odds I would face similar dilemmas during my own career weren’t just good, they were certain.

So what do we do when we know that these tricky, difficult situations are looming in our future, but we don’t know when or how they’re going to hit us? Business Ethics: A Field Guide aims to answer that question. The Field Guide is being written by Dr. Brad Agle, Dr. Aaron Miller, and Bill O’Rourke, and they have invited me to participate in the project. It is a practitioner’s handbook, designed and written for people in the workplace. In it, we outline what you can do to prepare for the ethical dilemmas that you will face in your career and then we discuss what to do when you’re actually in the middle of a dilemma. We have created a typology of the 13 most common types of ethical dilemmas that exist, and for each type of dilemma we investigate an example scenario, describe the dilemma, offer a step-by-step strategy for seeking a solution, and then warn you of common pitfalls to avoid.

The tactics involved in addressing each type of dilemma vary widely. As one can only explore so much in a single post, I would like to offer a few principles that seem to repeat themselves in multiple dilemmas. Remembering and acting on these principles can help you navigate the “gray space” that exists in the workplace, oftentimes when you’re trying to decide between two seemingly right decisions.

  1. Don’t panic. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to freak out when you’re suddenly thrown into a tricky ethical situation. You don’t need to worry—oftentimes, the situation isn’t as bad as it seems and a solution will present itself. Frequently, the best thing to do is just be patient. Don’t act rashly in the heat of the moment; not only might you end up making a poor decision, but you could also make a good decision but do it in a way that leads to an undesirable outcome. Take your time, think rationally, and don’t get carried away with the “worst case scenario” in your head. Remember, you’re not the first person to face that kind of dilemma.
  2. Seek help from others—you’re not on your own. Many companies have dedicated staff for addressing and resolving ethical concerns. If such resources are not available (and even when they are), feel free to turn to friends, loved ones, colleagues, or mentors. They usually can offer valuable advice—maybe one of them has even been in a similar situation in the past. Just be sure not to disclose any confidential information in the process.
  3. Communicate openly and honestly. Not enough can be said for the importance of communication! Misunderstanding is the root cause of far too many problems in the workplace. Communicating will allow you to accurately assess the motives of others and will also allow others to know your own motives. If they know that your motives are good, then even if you don’t make the best decision, others will be sympathetic and forgiving.
  4. Make decisions based on the long-term. In a moment of crisis, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and think only about the immediate future and its consequences. Consider the theory of virtue ethics (also referred to as “character ethics”) where you think about the type of person you want to be and then contemplate how your decision might affect who you are. [2] Ask yourself: “Is this act conducive to me becoming the type of person I want to be?” Consider the sleep test: Will I still be able to sleep well at night after I take this course of action? Or the disclosure test: Would I be willing to have my proposed actions accurately reported to the public? Virtue ethics isn’t a cure-all, but it can lead us to make better decisions.

You are certain to face ethical dilemmas throughout your career, but thankfully there are many strategies to pursue that will improve your confidence and skill in navigating such situations. Regardless of the specific kind of dilemma you face, remember not to panic, to seek help from others, to communicate openly, and to make decisions that are in accordance with your long-term vision of yourself.


[2] See: Hursthouse, R. (1999). On virtue ethics. Oxford University Press.


2 responses to “Recognizing the Reality of Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace

  1. Great article. I agree with what you say. It resonates and patterns the experiences I have had so far. It’s so easy to blow a situation out of proportion, when more often than not, the dilemma isn’t as bad as we presume it to be. I found it really helpful to communicate with others about the situation, be someone in the company or not. It helps me know if 1) it’s something I should be concerned about and 2) what I should I do about the situation. Staying silent is never good, because you always think “maybe I should have something?”

    Like you say, it’s not a matter of if one will face an ethical dilemma at some point, it’s a question of when. Your advice would definitely help in these situations.

    • Thanks for your adding your perspective, Beege. Communicating with others is always a key component to navigating these sorts of tricky dilemmas. I’m happy to hear that these strategies have helped you when you’ve found yourself in similar situations in the past.

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