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Making the Right Choice

Chances are, you will face an ethical dilemma sometime during your career. Here’s how to do the right thing.

By Michelle Neely Martinez

The vice president of finance suspects that several subordinates spend too much time using the Internet for nonwork-related issues. He asks you to monitor the employees’ email, URL visits and downloads, then report back to him in one week. You’re thinking, “This really isn’t a computer-capability issue, it’s about ethics.” To remain “in-the-know” and in “good standing,” do you just obey the boss?

Or, consider this scenario: Your boss tells you about a colleague who is among several others to be laid off soon. She says to keep it a secret, otherwise, the soon-to-be downsized employee might tell everyone, which would cause an uproar. Meanwhile, you know this employee, who actually reports to you, is planning some major house renovations and he’s about to sign with a contractor. What would you do?

The above scenarios are not uncommon. How they are played out really depends on an individual’s conscience, as well as how employers respond and support their employees who find themselves caught in the midst of dicey workplace dilemmas.

In both scenarios, you’d be wise to first check the employee handbook or company intranet. See if your employer has spelled at how to handle ethical dilemmas. If no advice is there, consider talking about the problem with the company’s director or vice president of human resources, or a trusted top-level executive within the organization.

According to Karen Coyle, a long-time volunteer with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Palo Alto, Calif., issues of computer privacy are often left to the IT department to address instead of the issue being examined by the company as a whole. “But this isn’t a computer issue,” says Coyle, “it’s a business issue.”

Dallas-based Texas Instruments and Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. are among a fair number of employers that include ethics training in their new employee orientations. In these workplaces, upholding integrity and fairness is also done via a written code of ethics that employees must abide by as part of their employment contract.

At Texas Instruments, employees are given a business-size ethics reminder card that they can easily carry with them as a reference tool. The card includes the short list of questions below for employees to answer when they find themselves in questionable situations:


  • Is the action legal?
  • Does it comply with our values?
  • If you do it, will you feel bad?
  • How will it look in the newspaper?
  • If you know it’s wrong, don’t do it!
  • If you’re not sure, ask.
  • Keep asking until you get an answer.

At Lockheed Martin, part of ethics training includes an interactive CD-ROM employees can use at their own pace. Each employee also receives a computer screen saver featuring the company’s 12 building blocks of trust.

But not all employers are as savvy at preparing employees to handle ethical dilemmas. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (Alexandria, Va.) and the Ethics Resource Center (Washington, D.C.), 73% of the 747 human resource professionals surveyed said their organization had developed written ethics standards or codes of ethical business conduct. Yet, 61% of respondents said their companies don’t provide training on ethical standards. And only 31% of those surveyed said their organizations have ethics offices or ombudsmen.

If you find yourself in the midst of an ethical dilemma and no employer-provided advice is readily available, consider this three-step strategy from Thomas White, author and professor of business ethics and director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles offers:

1. Analyze the Consequences

“Assume you have a variety of options,” explains Dr. White. “Consider the range of both positive and negative consequences connected with each one,” by asking the following questions:


  • Who will be helped by what you do?
  • Who will be hurt?
  • What kind of benefits and harms are involved? For example, good factors such as a person’s health and well-being are more valuable than other things that may be gained, such as a new VCR.
  • How does the dilemma affect the long run and the short run? “If you are tempted to give short shrift to the long run, just remember that you’re living with a lot of long-term negative consequences—like air and water pollution and the S&L bailout—that people before you thought weren’t important enough to do something about,” White says.

After looking at all your options, you need to decide which one produces the best mix of benefits and harms,” explains White.

2. Analyze the Action

According to White, step two is about considering all your options without thinking about the consequences. He says to concentrate strictly on the actions by asking such questions as:


  • How do they measure against moral principles of honesty, fairness, equality, respecting the dignity of others, respecting people’s rights, and recognizing the vulnerability of individuals weaker or less fortunate than others?
  • Do any of the actions that you’re considering “cross the line” in terms of anything from simple decency to an important ethical principle?
  • If there’s conflict between principles or between the rights of different people involved, is there a reason to see one principle as more important than the others?

What you’re looking for in this step, White says, is the option in which the actions are least problematic.

3. Make a Decision

From the research and analysis you did in steps one and two, you’ll be closer to making the best decision. Eventually, everyone faces a crisis of conscience in their career. In fact, a 1999 survey by Indianapolis-based Walker Information Inc. and public policy organization Hudson Institute, reveals that 30% of U.S. employees know or suspect that ethical violations have occurred in their workplaces in the past two years.

Michelle Neely Martinez is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in career development, workplace management and human resources issues.

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