Have you ever been in a situation faced with an ethical dilemma at work?

First what is an ethical dilemma?

“Ethical Dilemmas also known as a moral dilemmas, are situations in which there is a choice to be made between two options, neither of which resolves the satiation in an ethically acceptable fashion.”

Cover for ethical dilemma at work

An ethical dilemma can cross our path in many forms and shapes in our daily lives and particularly at work. Some of you might have experienced it firsthand while some have witnessed it happen to a colleague of yours.

Lets Consider A Scenario As To How An Ethical Dilemma Can Arise At Work:

Suppose you are working in a team of 10 people on a certain project and without even noticing it at the end of the project you are faced with an ethical dilemma. You are working on a project with a team of 10 people only 7 worked hard while 3 did not work hard as the rest of the 7 people. The completion of the project was down to 7 people in the team. Now you are faced with an ethical dilemma scenario here; that do you specify the 3 persons who did not work as hard as the rest of 7 or that all the 10 people in the team get full credit for the completion of the project. I will discuss in detail later that who would report such an issue and who would not depending on their personality type. But the best way to avoid being in such a scenario is to share the workload of the project equally and each team member is handed specific task with a time frame limit. In this way not only the project will be completed in time and with best outcome but also most importantly you don’t have to go through such a testing phase with your colleagues and create bitterness within the team.

“But lets accept the reality there will be times when you are faced with an ethical dilemma at work and no matter what choice you make; you feel you made the wrong choice.”


The Ethical Dilemma Trilogy:

 Lets not forget that an ethical dilemma can exit within ‘you’ as an employee, between you and another employee or between an employee and employer.

How An Employee Can Behave Unethically:

For instance an employee using company phone for making personal calls, using company printer for personal printouts, using company business contacts for personal gains by taking undue advantage of such and other facilities can all be regarded as unethical.

How An Employer Can Behave Unethically:

An extremely unethical practice on part of the employer might be favoritism; which is typically more so common in Asian countries. In such a case an employer may approve a particular employee/person over another regarding promotion, relocation or even hiring. In this way an employer is neglecting other deserving or eligible employee/person.

The other extreme form of unethical behavior on part of employer is sexual harassment; where an employee is sexually harassed by the employer or on complaint from an employee is not looked into and denied their legal rights. Many cases of sexual harassment go un-reported because the victim/employee feels they might be picked up on or as a result treated unfairly by the employer in many ways. Recently many such cases have resurfaced in high profile companies in Silicon Valley.

My Personal Experience:

I will share my personal experience as to grasp a better understanding of the subject and that led me to write this. Also in the end I will suggest on how to resolve/avoid ethical issues at work.

I experienced a situation few years back in which my professional responsibility unexpectedly came into conflict with my deepest moral values. I was caught up in a ‘clash of right & right.’ My Area Operations Manager asked me to visit one of company’s unit in Southampton to asses the units overall performance and reason for dropping sales.

On the day of my visit the Manager of the Unit was off. During off-peak time only one staff was working in FOH (Front Of House) while I was doing some paperwork in the back office and the staff member thought I was out. But I was monitoring her too as I was there to asses different aspects of the business. I witnessed from the back the staff member after receiving money from the customer did not ring the till and put the money in her pocket. I kept a constant watch and she did it twice. Once other staff members came back from break, I called her in the office and asked her explanation regarding the issue but she denied any wrongdoing. But after using some investigative techniques she agreed to the wrongdoing.

My main concern was why did she do it other than the obvious reasons. I dug deep into the matter and she said because the Manager of the unit deducts her 2-3 hours every week in payroll and as a result she gets paid less. She already complained but no one listens. During that time the company was very tight on labor cost especially for the units with low sales. But I did not take her word for it and enquired from other staff members generally and they were of the opinion yes it has happened to them too or they are not allowed to take breaks at times etc. I took her statement about her wrongdoing with her signatures to cover the company and told her that the matter will be looked into with sympathy but also she could face strict disciplinary action.

I came back to London and informed the whole situation to the concerned Area Operations Manager of the unit along with her statement while asking him to conduct a thorough investigation so such an incident does not place in future and manager should also be accountable. When the AOM went to the unit he right away sacked the staff member and the manager was not held accountable for anything. I felt the staff member could have been given a final written warning and monitored regularly or at least the manager could have been held responsible for his irresponsible actions.

“No matter what option I would have chosen, I felt like I have come up short.”


How To Avoid Situations Of Ethical Dilemmas Or What To Do If Happen To Be In One:

 I have broken down this into three parts for ease and better understanding at employee level, employer level and how both can help each other.

Employee’s Responsibility:

 As an employee you might have encountered aforementioned ethical dilemmas often and the question comes to mind as what to do with it?

It all comes down to what type of your personality.

If someone has strong moral values and not afraid what others might think of their action; they will tell them right away and report them to their line manager/supervisor.

While some will follow company rule to the letter and not take any action on their part. Some will play along and adopt a policy of wait and see. They will follow what their colleagues do and on their own will not take any steps.

Last but not least some will not take any action and will try to remain neutral in such matters. In fact they are on the look out of every opportunity to gain loyalty and respect from their line managers/supervisors and go to any lengths to be in their good books even if they have to lie.

Employer’s Responsibility:

First & foremost employee handbooks should have clear guidelines as what to do in cases of ethical dilemmas and who to report to. Further employee contracts should contain all such details and clearly state that that they are protected if they report such cases just to reassure them.

The HR department conduct regular workshops on issues of ethical dilemmas where all supervisors, line managers and department are given training on how to spot such issue and how to respond that best protects the company and also does not put the employee in any harms way. Most importantly they are encouraged to get regular feedback from employees and to be open on such matters.

If the budget allows the HR department can conduct similar workshops for employees too.

Employees & Employers Need To Work Together:

If both employees & employers work together in a more open and transparent manner then such incidents of ethical dilemmas not only can be resolved with ease but also dramatically reduce. First employees need to take responsibility of their own actions and if they do then they will not tolerate any unethical acts of their colleagues.

On part of the employer line managers, supervisors and department heads need to make every employee at home regarding such incidents of this nature. They can do this by creating an environment where employees know if they have a difference of opinion, report a controversy or a complaint about an ethical dilemma at work they will not in any way be treated unfairly now and in the future.


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