What Will You Do When Faced with an Ethical Dilemma at the Office?

Let’s be blunt … generally the business world has not been a place to look when seeking answers to an ethical dilemma. From Enron to Wells Fargo to Pharma-Bro, Martin Shkreli, when companies fail to make ethical decisions, it leads to public distrust, employee loss, and potentially catastrophic legal issues. On the other hand, when an organization is known for its integrity, it attracts the highest caliber of employees and builds strong relationships with customers, suppliers, investors, and donors.

Additionally, being an ethical organizational culture leads to increased efficiency, greater employee commitment, investor trust, and customer satisfaction. And, studies have even shown that ethical organizations financially outperform unethical organizations. It seems that every day we face myriad decisions, temptations, and possibilities. It is up to us to make the right choice every time.

Here are some guidelines to help you if you’re not sure what to do in a certain situation:

What are the questions to ask when faced with an ethical dilemma?    

  • Rules: Is my action illegal or against the company policy?
  • Values: Does the action I’m considering follow my core values?
  • Conscience: Will your actions make you feel guilty? Can you truly justify your actions?
  • Consequences: Could you or someone else suffer physical harm? Could you or someone else suffer serious emotional pain? Could the decision hurt your reputation, undermine your credibility, or damage relationships?
  • Promises: Will your action live up to the commitment that you made to the other person (customer, client, supplier, employee, employer) in the business relationship? Will your action build more trust?
  • Moral Heroes: What would your moral hero would do in the same situation? How would your hero act? Would your moral hero be proud of your actions?

Use “What-If” Scenarios to Work Through Real-World Ethical Dilemmas

What-if scenarios allow you to consider all the ramifications of your actions. Continue to ask “what if” after each proposed action.

1) You work in the telephone center of a toy company. Parents are calling, worried about the choking hazards of a new toy. Even though everyone in the company knows that there have been cases of children choking on this toy, your boss tells you that it is not a concern and to inform the parents not to worry about it.

A. What if you follow your boss’s orders?
B. What if you report your misgivings to the legal department?

2) You work as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. While the test results show that a new drug is an effective treatment for sleep disorders, you know that the test was designed poorly just to ensure these preordained results. In short, it was rigged.

A. What if you don’t say anything?
B. What if you report your concerns to the FDA?

We know that there are complicated dilemmas you face every day—and that business pressures can create a sea of conflicting responsibilities to coworkers, customers, donors, and investors. When in doubt, remember Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ formula for living ethically from his work, Meditations: If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it. When you’re faced with an ethical dilemma and aren’t sure what to do, seek help. If necessary, seek professional help.


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