What Is an Ethical Dilemma? (Plus Helpful Examples and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 21 June 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.

When a challenging situation in the workplace arises, it's necessary to handle it ethically. Learning how to make good choices can enable you to support others, maintain relationships and build a positive professional reputation for yourself. Whatever your occupation, there are a variety of actions you can take to overcome ethical dilemmas successfully. In this article, we answer "What is an ethical dilemma?", provide steps for handling one, review examples and types and offer tips to guide you.

What is an ethical dilemma?

To answer the question, "What is an ethical dilemma?", an ethical dilemma is when a person has a challenging moral choice to make. Typically, both or all options have potentially undesirable consequences. The decision-maker chooses which moral principle to prioritise and follow. It may be necessary to breach one principle to follow a more important one.

An ethical paradox can occur for an entry-level employee, leader, company executive or other professional. For example, a manager may ask an employee to do something that contradicts legal or company regulations. In this situation, the team member encounters a choice between following directions or protecting the legal interests of themselves and the company.

Related: What Is Integrity? Definitions and Examples

How to handle an ethical dilemma

By considering the circumstances and acting with professionalism, you can overcome ethical dilemmas. Here are six steps for how to resolve a challenging moral situation in the workplace:

1. Outline the potential repercussions of each choice

The first step to resolving an ethical dilemma is considering your choices and their consequences. Consider creating a pros and cons chart or some sort of diagram to list the positive and negative repercussions of each action you might take. This may help you in organising your thoughts and evaluating your options. You may benefit from choosing the option with the lowest risk that something negative may happen and the highest possibility of a positive outcome.

2. Study the employee handbook

Reference the employee handbook and company policies to check what you might do. Many companies' handbooks have information regarding ethical dilemmas. By checking what company protocols exist, you can adhere to company regulations, fulfill your contractual obligations and protect your legal interests. It may be beneficial to report the situation to your human resources (HR) manager so they can resolve it according to company standards.

Related: Code of Conduct Examples in the Workplace (Definition and Types)

3. Have a conversation

Consider discussing the ethical dilemma with the person or people involved. You can gain perspective, ask clarifying questions and attempt to influence your colleague to make an ethical decision. They may appreciate your directness. For extreme ethics violations, it may be better to communicate with an HR manager or other leader, or call an anonymous hotline.

4. Think about future consequences

Think about the future, rather than just the current state of affairs, when making a moral decision. Consider how your decision may affect your own future and the future of others. Think about perspectives that may differ from your own and integrate these into your decision-making. This can ensure your choices are supporting the well-being of others.

5. Remove yourself from the situation

If you find yourself in ethical problems regularly within a team or organisation and there haven't been attempts or actions to resolve these situations, consider leaving the company. Finding other employment can ease your stress and enable you to uphold your personal standards and ethics. Leaving an unethical company can also help you protect your record and reputation.

Related: 20 Important Life Skills to Support Your Career Success

6. Refer to industry guidelines

Some professionals, like lawyers, accountants and doctors, have industry guidelines or legal regulations that enforce ethical and moral behaviour. Violations can lead to disciplinary action or a loss of license. Referring to codes of conduct and ethics can help you determine what steps to take when solving challenging moral dilemmas.

Benefits of handling ethical dilemmas

There are usually a variety of factors to consider in every decision, but prioritising ethics in your decision-making can provide you with lasting benefits in your professional and personal life. Here are some advantages to handling dilemmas ethically:

  • Prove your professionalism: To act with professionalism in the workplace is to behave in a polite, reasonable, responsible, honest and accountable manner. Overcoming ethical dilemmas by making smart decisions can prove your professionalism and make you a more attractive candidate for job and promotion opportunities.

  • Build lasting relationships: By making ethical decisions, you can support the well-being of colleagues and foster a positive work environment. This can build lasting relationships with your coworkers that serve you throughout your professional career.

  • Foster respect: To fulfil your job responsibilities and collaborate with others effectively, it's helpful if your colleagues, team members and supervisors see you as ethical, trustworthy, logical and respectable. Handling ethical dilemmas responsibly is especially important if you act as a leader to others, as you're obligated to act as a model for proper behaviour.

Related: 18 Good Leadership Qualities for Career Success

Examples of moral dilemmas

Reviewing the following examples of moral issues may aid you in solving your own:

Taking credit for another's work

In this example, an employee's supervisor takes credit for their work and earns a reward for it. The employee talks to the supervisor to resolve the situation:

Ursula worked on a marketing campaign for a new product launch and shared a slogan idea with Tom, her supervisor. Tom was also interviewing for a promotion at the same time. The client approved the new slogan and the sales revenue surpassed forecasted amounts when the product went to market. When Ursula learned of Tom's promotion to manager, the interviewing director mentioned that Tom's slogan was a significant factor in the decision to promote him.

Ursula talked with Tom privately about her disapproval of his actions and failure to give her credit for her idea. She requested he correct the situation professionally. When the performance review cycle occurred, Tom outlined to company executives how Ursula's slogan had generated high sales and client satisfaction rates. Top leaders also saw her review, allowing her to gain proper recognition for her work and achievements without causing harm to Tom's new position.

Related: 10 Business Ethics Examples to Implement in the Workplace

Using internal data to make a profit

In this example, an executive uses inside knowledge about an upcoming merger to profit from the stock market:

Jackson works as an executive assistant to Patricia, a vice president of a pharmaceutical company. He overhears a phone conversation where Patricia talks about an upcoming merger and acquisition of her company with another, informing the person on the other line to buy stocks in the other company. Because this is an ethical transgression, Jackson uses the company's business and ethics hotline to make a confidential report of what he overheard. By taking this action, Jackson helped the company handle the situation before any stock sales happened, preventing both legal ramifications and negative public perception of the company.

Conducting other business at work

In this example, a colleague uses company time and equipment to work on their side business:

Chris operates a small e-commerce site for comic books and Ben often sees him using the work computer during business hours to post products, email customers and conduct other aspects of his e-commerce business. While this doesn't offend Ben at first, Chris continues to use company time for personal matters, even when important work deadlines approach and other members of the team stay late to accomplish work.

Ben is mindful of affecting his working relationship with Chris or making assumptions, so he privately asks questions about the situation. Chris shares he didn't realise how much time he was spending on personal matters or that others were taking notice and he thanks Ben for mentioning it to him directly. Over the next few workdays, Ben immediately sees Chris only work on his e-commerce business during lunch hours from his personal smartphone.

Tips for handling ethical quandaries

Explore these tips for handling ethical quandaries successfully:

  • Apply the value theory approach: The value theory approach means selecting the option that offers the best outcome or the least negative consequences. This can be a helpful method when you're encountering a challenging decision.

  • Ask questions: Approach someone with questions about their behaviour instead of accusing them or assuming their actions are wrong. This may aid you in keeping the conversation calm and help you gain insight into how you can resolve the situation peacefully.

  • Discuss the situation with a trusted source: If possible, you might tell a trusted friend or family member about your moral quandary to garner their help. They may provide you with a new, outside perspective you hadn't considered.

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