HR Management & Compliance

Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace: Why Do Some Organizations Stumble?

Ethical dilemmas in the workplace are quite common, and they’re not always easy to answer. The concepts are straightforward, but the challenge is in the execution. Even when organizations have great policies and procedures and follow the laws and regulations, there’s still a high risk of unethical behavior.

For example, some employees may not know the resources exist to help in decision-making. They may not know who to turn to with questions. Any time an organization is not fully supporting people, they’re increasing the possibility of high risk behavior.

Why do some organizations stumble when it comes to ethics? The answer is sometimes simple. In many cases there are mixed messages, such as inconsistent application of policies or a tendency to overlook borderline or even directly unethical behavior. This is the “it’s not my job” mentality.

Here are some other common missteps:

  • Senior leaders fail to “walk the talk” – they are guilty of modeling inappropriate behavior.
  • Leaders often have an irrational sense of entitlement, feeling “I should be allowed to do this,” or “I deserve this.”
  • Individuals may begin cutting corners due to misplaced incentives. When an organization begins rewarding the wrong things, this can lead to cutting corners on safety, quality, etc.
  • Individuals may also feel the need to be obedient to authority, even when they are being asked to do something they feel is wrong.
  • Individuals also have the need for closure, which can lead to conflict avoidance. For example, an employee may not be sure how to approach a possibly unethical situation, so he or she may simply opt to close it out without having the difficult conversation about ethics.
  • Defensive “logic” is prevalent. This manifests as “everyone is doing it, so why not me?” or “why should I stick my neck out?”

“These are things that organizations – particularly senior leaders and other leaders within the organization – need to be sensitive to. We need to look at the environment again: how we are positioning all of our employees in their day-to-day work? Are we setting them up for failure in terms of these ethical traps? What safety nets are we placing underneath them as they walk that tightrope, navigating through what a peer may ask, what a customer may say or demand, and so on and so forth?” Susan Alevas asked in a recent BLR webinar. These are key considerations for any business.

In other cases, the ethical dilemmas organizations face are even more difficult because there is not a “wrong” answer. The toughest ethical dilemmas in the workplace occur when two or more competing alternatives are present, each having its own set of ethical values, the choice of which always offers a less-than-ideal solution. This happens because we often are pitting two favorable outcomes against each other—often fairness versus compassion. “Right” versus “right” is the toughest ethical challenge to navigate.

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Susan Alevas, president of Alevas Consulting, is a management/training consultant and a private attorney who is licensed to practice law in New York and Florida. She has more than 15 years of experience as an executive leader in human resources and labor relations in both the private and public sectors.

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