What to do when you have an ethical dilemma at work

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 25 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In many areas of life, including at work, you might sometimes face complex ethical problems where it's difficult to find a suitable solution. In some cases, all of the potential solutions might cause further issues, known as a moral dilemma. If you understand what a moral dilemma is and what steps you can take to solve one, it can help you to deal with these challenging situations more easily. In this article, we explore what to do when you have an ethical dilemma at work.

What is an ethical dilemma?

An ethical dilemma is a complex issue without an obvious solution. They're also sometimes called moral dilemmas. The potential solutions to the problem might cause issues of their own, which can make it very challenging to decide how to proceed. A moral dilemma involves making a choice when none of the options is ideal.

These situations can arise in any area of your life, including at work. For example, a manager might ask you to do something at work that you believe is wrong. Refusing to follow instructions could have negative repercussions for you but doing what someone else tells you to do could cause issues for other stakeholders such as customers or colleagues. Ethical dilemmas can arise for a variety of different reasons and some concerns are more serious than others. Situations that frequently create moral dilemmas include:

  • discrimination

  • ignorance

  • personal ambitions of colleagues or managers

  • pressure from managers

How to deal with a moral dilemma at work

Whilst dealing with a moral dilemma is a challenge, there are some steps you can take to deal with the situation in a calm and rational way. The biggest challenge with moral dilemmas is that they lack a clear solution or way to proceed. It can also be challenging sometimes to decide whether it's really worth discussing or reporting the issue. Following these suggestions can help you view the dilemma as a whole and make an appropriate decision.

Related: How to make a difficult decision at work (with tips)

1. Analyse the risks

Analysing what's at risk with each potential solution helps you to compare the options. This can help you to make a decision about how to proceed. Before escalating the issue, consider what risks both the dilemma itself and the potential solutions pose. This can help you to decide whether or not to take action and what the appropriate action might be.

2. Use ethics training

If you're in a leadership position you might have had ethics training from your employer. If you have doubts about what to do in a moral dilemma, think about the training you took part in. Your employer provided the training so it's reasonable for you to use this as guidance for how to approach a situation.

3. Refer to your company handbook

Regardless of whether you've had ethics training, referring to your company handbook can help to guide your decision-making. The section on ethics can include any important information or rules that could influence your decision. Checking this can make it clearer what the most appropriate action is. In some companies, there might also be an ethics contact number that you can use to anonymously report ethical concerns instead of pursuing the matter further yourself.

4. Check industry guidelines

Some industries, for example, the legal and medical professions, have industry-wide guidelines about moral dilemmas and ethical behaviour. Violating these guidelines can sometimes result in disciplinary action or sanctions so it's important to understand the guidance if your industry offers it. Checking this guidance can also help you to make decisions when you have a moral dilemma. Similarly to in-house ethics contact numbers for companies, there might be an industry-wide contact you can use to report ethical concerns.

Related: What is a professional code of ethics? (with examples)

5. Trust your instincts

If you feel there is a problem at work and suspect it needs investigation it can often be wise to trust your instincts about this. Reporting your concerns can help to protect yourself, other employees and the company as a whole. If you instinctively feel that something is wrong it's important to take some time to confirm your suspicions before you escalate the matter. This might mean observing the behaviour of colleagues you think are ignoring ethical codes more carefully to confirm that this is definitely the case.

6. Have an open conversation

In some cases, having an open conversation is the most suitable way to resolve a moral dilemma. A conversation with all parties helps you to clarify the situation, gain perspective and ask questions and influence colleagues to act in a more ethical way. An open conversation might be enough to change the situation. If things stay the same after the conversation it might be necessary to escalate the matter or look for another solution. For more extreme ethical concerns, such as discrimination or harassment, it's often more appropriate to report the issue as soon as possible.

7. Remove yourself from the situation

It's problematic if your job continually presents you with moral dilemmas and you might want to consider moving to a new team or role if this is the case. If you are continually dealing with ethical concerns at work, it can increase your stress and anxiety and also affect your job satisfaction. If you've exhausted all other options but the problems persist, it might be more beneficial to look for alternative career opportunities.

Tips for handling moral dilemmas

Ethical dilemmas rarely have clear solutions but there are some additional tips you can follow that might make solving them more straightforward. Using these ideas alongside the steps for solving moral dilemmas can help you to make a decision when there is no single right answer. These suggestions might also help you to find new potential solutions that have a more positive outcome. Some tips for handling moral dilemmas at work are:

  • Brainstorm: Brainstorming possible solutions can help you to suggest an alternative course of action. Even if an idea is unconventional it might be a good solution when you have a tough moral dilemma.

  • Use value theory: The value theory approach argues that the correct choice is the one that causes the greater good or lesser evil. Applying this approach can help you to decide between different options that each have flaws or related issues.

  • Ask questions: Asking questions instead of accusing someone else of unethical behaviour helps to keep conversations about moral dilemmas calm and productive. Asking questions helps you to understand the other person's perspective and helps you to find out whether they're open to change.

  • Make a plan: Before reporting an ethical concern, make a plan for how to raise the issue and what information you could share. This can make you feel more comfortable with reporting your concerns.

  • Question your assumptions: Questioning your assumptions or rationalisations about a situation can help you decide whether it's a genuine concern that would be necessary to escalate. This helps you to see the issue as a whole.

Related: Interview question: Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision

Why is it important to handle dilemmas effectively?

Being able to handle dilemmas effectively is important both in and outside of work. There are a variety of benefits that come from being able to deal with moral dilemmas appropriately in the workplace. Handling dilemmas effectively can have an impact on:

  • Your reputation: Having a reputation for being professional and ethical can improve your reputation and give you an advantage in your career. This can help you to secure new opportunities within your organisation and with other employers.

  • Your character: Moral dilemmas are tough and can help you to further develop your character. Building on your resilience can mean you're better equipped to handle other moral dilemmas in the future.

  • Your company's image: A strong and ethical company image can be beneficial for business. This can help to increase revenue and profits.

  • Potential legal issues: Legal issues relating to serious ethical concerns can be costly for businesses. Handling ethical challenges effectively can resolve issues before they reach this stage.

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