Ethics at Work

Ethical choices can arise in any situation, at home or on the job. At work, ethical behavior isn't just a good idea. It's also good business, and often it's even the law. Companies that use trickery to boost the bottom line can find themselves punished by stockholders who want honest and true growth. And companies that treat employees unfairly can find themselves on the losing end of expensive lawsuits.

Ethics can help you avoid those bad turns, but only if you use them consistently. Behaving ethically is something you do all the time, not just when it's convenient. Fall short here and the consequences can be severe.


Consider Ford Motor Co., which drew consumer outrage in the early 1970s over its defective compact car, the Pinto. Fuel tanks were rupturing in rear-end collisions, causing fiery crashes that injured and killed people. The company knew about the problem, but resisted making a repair that would have cost $11 per car. Ford was a sitting duck for 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace. Media coverage dented Ford's public image, and the company suffered further when juries awarded victims millions in legal damages.


A decade later, Johnson & Johnson won praise for how it responded when cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules killed seven people in the Chicago area. The company voluntarily pulled 31 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves and destroyed them. The swift action cost Johnson & Johnson millions of dollars, but preserved the company's integrity and reputation.


Ethical dilemmas surface in less dramatic fashion all the time. Whether the quandary is large or small, the same steps should be followed as you search for the answer:

  • Collect as much information as you can before forming an opinion or closing in on a solution
  • Get the broadest possible perspective by tapping many different information sources
  • Fight your own unconscious biases by withholding judgment until you've given each fact its moment in the sun
  • Consider your values and your gut feeling before deciding


Once you've churned your facts through some deep thought, you're ready to make an ethical choice. Remember, even after the most careful and thoughtful deliberations, there's rarely a perfect solution. That's okay, as long as you've explored the dilemma with an open mind and chosen a solution based on meaningful values.


Key Tips

Key Tip 1

Ask yourself these questions when you're faced with a problem of ethics:

  • What's at stake?
  • What are the consequences of my decision?
  • How will the decision be viewed from different perspectives?
  • Would it be acceptable if everyone acted this way?


Key Tip 2

Take these steps to deal with an ethical dilemma, and to prepare for problems down the road:

  1. Recognize the call to action. If it's really a worthy cause, take a deep breath and jump in.
  2. Get the facts. Remain as impartial as possible. Consider the issue from as many perspectives and points of view as possible.
  3. Evaluate the alternatives. Seek solutions that do more good than harm, are fair and non-discriminatory, and reflect agreed-upon values of the group. Don't compromise too quickly.
  4. Make a decision. Remember, no solution will be perfect. Imagine yourself telling a respected friend or relative about the decision you made. What would her reaction be? As another test, consider how you'd feel if your decision were published in a newspaper. Choose a solution that will make you feel proud.
  5. Evaluate the decision. Were there unforeseen consequences you would have preferred to avoid? Keep this in mind so that you'll be better prepared for the next decision you'll have to make.


Key Tip 3

Even if you're not a major decision-maker, you make important choices every day that influence your company's moral compass. An unethical action can harm your reputation. It can also drive clients away, or spark a costly lawsuit.



The first place you're likely to notice a moral conflict is in your stomach, believe it or not. The confusion and chaos of ethical controversy can cause physical stress long before your brain has had a chance to begin processing it. Think of that anxiety, empathy or anger as a calling card from your conscience.

Maybe you'll feel that pang in the following scenario. You're head of a dairy company that supplies milk to pupils in three states. A federal rule requires you to provide exactly six ounces of milk in every carton. But by shorting the cartons just a half-ounce you can save $300,000 this year. That's exactly how much money you've been told to trim from this year's budget to avoid laying off 10 plant workers.

What do you do? To move beyond facts, explore principles and values by asking yourself these questions:

  • What's at stake? School children will lose a few sips of milk or 10 jobs will be lost.
  • What are the larger consequences? Maybe it's just a few sips, but poor children, especially, depend on their daily lunch at school. Short them a half-ounce a day and they'll have missed more than a cup of milk by the end of the month. Also, if the dairy shorts the milk cartons, it will violate a federal rule, face fines, tarnish its reputation and risk losing the business it needs to stay afloat. That could put more than 10 people out of work.
  • What are the different points of view? As CEO, you want to save jobs. The students - and the administrators who bought the milk - were promised a full carton in the contract.
  • What if everyone acted this way? How would such short cuts affect your business? If cattle breeders sold low-quality cows to your dairy, you wouldn't be able to compete. If school districts paid for the milk with checks that bounce, you couldn't afford to sell milk to schools.


Use the questions about the milk cartons the next time you're in an ethical jam. They'll get you thinking about solutions. But if answers elude you, take heart. Thinkers, great and small, have been pondering the slippery subject of ethics for thousands of years. The fruits of all that thinking include several broad categories of ethical approaches. We've detailed four common ones and how they work in the real world. They may help you navigate your way through ethical decisions.


Goal: Achieve the greatest overall good while doing the least harm.
Example: Leslie decides to purchase a new network system for the department, even though that means money won't be available to give raises to two employees she'd like to reward.

Goal: Preserve individual rights.

Example: Nina, the human resources director, holds a special meeting to let all employees know about changes in the health plan that could increase their co-payments. Legally, she's only required to send out a memo within 30 days of the change, but she thinks it's important to tell employees about the changes as soon as possible - and to do it face-to-face.

Goal: Be fair; make sure no one gets special treatment or is discriminated against.
Example: Evelyn makes sure she promotes John before Roberta, since John started several key projects and has seniority. The board voted for Roberta's promotion because she's well-connected and will likely land many new accounts. Nonetheless, Evelyn is sticking with her support for John.

Goal: Be virtuous; act in ways that are consistent with positive character traits.
Example: A group of employees planned to participate in a multiple sclerosis walk-a-thon. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to inclement weather and many of the sponsors didn't pay what they pledged. The employees got together, tallied the unpaid amount, and chipped in to cover the difference.

There are no easy answers here. The facts alone won't solve any ethical dilemma because the facts only tell what the problem is, not what the solution should be. A system of ethics will help you recognize right and wrong, but it won't give you specific solutions. What ethics will do is guide you as you search for answers. And they'll transform your vague sense of concern, anger or agitation into a clear, strong, confident position.



A coworker told me that our boss made a joke about me recently after I had left a meeting. She asked me not to reveal that she's the one who told me about it. I want to confront my boss, but I don't want to betray my coworker. What's the right thing to do?

First of all, make sure you're not just being hypersensitive. If the joke was a friendly jab and not a mean-spirited punch, then forget about it. But if you're sure there was something to it, consider this:

Your dilemma is between pride (yours) and privacy (your coworker's). You're correct in placing a high value on not betraying a colleague. You might consider asking her why she's uncomfortable. Why doesn't she want your boss to know that she told you?


If you're sure she won't openly support you, consider approaching your boss anyway. Don't be self-righteous or hostile. Your primary goal is to understand why your boss said it. It's likely that simply raising the issue will get you an apology. If it doesn't, then go ahead; tell your boss you feel undermined and that you hope it won't happen again. Be polite, but don't be afraid to be honest and stand up for yourself. Chances are, no harm was intended.


Important note: Don't let your boss wrangle the tipster's name out of you.


I love my job, but, to be honest, I'm pretty much a numbers jock. I do lots of statistics and spreadsheets. I don't sign off on any budgets, and I don't make any big decisions. I don't have to worry about all this ethics stuff, do I?

In a word: Yes. The ethical awareness of any team depends on everyone. The way you treat your coworker, whether you pad an expense report, and how much sensitive information you disclose to a client are all decisions you make on your own. Even if you're not responsible for deciding the future of the company, you make important decisions every day that help shape the moral climate of your office. Don't sell yourself short. Every employee should come to work with a conscience.

My boss hinted that I ought to fudge the numbers on our quarterly report to ensure that our department is perceived as pulling its weight. Normally, I wouldn't do something like that. But it's really my boss' decision. Shouldn't I just go along with this since he is ultimately responsible?

Actually, this is a very treacherous line of reasoning. Many people who have ruined their careers through ethical violations thought they were justified because someone higher in the organization had given them the green light. But the fact is that we can never entirely give up responsibility for our actions.


The temptation to try to pin our behaviors on those in authority is strong. But such rationale rings hollow. If your boss asks you to cross a line you wouldn't cross on your own, it is probably time to put your foot down.


Your program is here to help you along the journey of life. No situation is too big or too small. When you and your family members need assistance, reach out anytime and we will help get you on the right path to meet your needs.




Return to home page