How to Develop a Process to Manage Ethical Dilemmas
Yesterday I blogged on my ethicssage.com website about “The Role of Management in Establishing an Ethical Culture.” The culture of an organization evolves from the values and ethical standards that should guide all actions and decisions. Today’s blog addresses “How to Deal with Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace.” Ethical conflicts that remain unresolved can lead to frustration for employees, managers, and external stakeholders.
Ethical conflicts arise when stakeholder interests differ. For example, a company may choose to maximize production and pay little attention to the quality of the end product while the customers expect the product to meet their specifications. Customers trust the organization to get it right the first time.
An ethical conflict occurs when the interests of two employees are at odds. For example, two employees are up for one promotion and one takes credit for the work of the other. The decision-maker needs to find a way to figure out who deserves credit for the work and make the decision accordingly.
Conflict Resolution Process
Ethical conflicts do not always deal with right versus wrong issues. Dealing with such conflicts requires balancing the interests of all parties involved, as I have previously blogged about. Imagine that the two employees have an equal claim to a promotion to supervisor based on past performance. Each has a right to it but only one can be chosen. In this case the supervisor/manager needs to follow a prescribed process to resolve the dilemma by incorporating an ethical dimension to the decision. Here are six questions to ask:
- Which one is likely to set goals that conform to management’s objectives?
- Which one can best work with stakeholders: customers, suppliers, and so on?
- Which one is more likely to be viewed as an effective leader by the work group?
- Which one is more respected by the work group and is more likely to be followed?
- Which one is more likely to establish an ethical tone at the top?
- Which one has greater leadership potential?
The best approach to resolve an ethical conflict in the workplace is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This means to have a defined core set of values; ethical standards (code of ethics); strong compliance function; and ethical leadership. When conflicts do occur a defined process helps to resolve it in an effective manner. Here are my thoughts about how best to resolve ethical conflicts:
Identify the ethical issue.
- Clearly define the problem.
- Ethical issues occur when stakeholder interests conflict.
- Ethical issues exist when a proposed action may be legal but doesn’t conform to the ethical standards of the organization.
Identify and evaluate alternative courses of action.
- Consider how each alternative affects the stakeholders.
- Use ethical reasoning to resolve the dilemma.
- Evaluate the rights of each party and your obligations to them
- Treat each party fairly in resolving the dilemma
- Weigh the costs and benefits of alternatives.
Seek help if necessary to resolve the dilemma.
- What is the role of your supervisor in this matter – i.e., an enabler of the conflict or potential supporter?
- Who can you go to for guidance and support – i.e., the board of directors?
If the supervisor is the one creating the conflict, then the employee must consider whether to jump the chain of command. I will address employee concerns in my next blog.
Decide on a course of action.
- Would others in the organization respect me and my decision?
- How would my decision make me feel about myself? Would I be proud of my decision? Would others be proud – i.e., my family?
- Would I be able to defend my action if it became public knowledge – i.e., published in a newspaper?
A common mistake is to assume that if an action is legal it is, therefore, ethical. This is what’s known as ethical legalism. A decision to withhold potential product defects from a customer may not break the law but it is dishonest. It is not an overt lie but the decision fails to disclose all the information a customer has a right and need to know. Truthfulness is a double-edge sword and many organizations fail on the transparency end.
Resolving a conflict in the workplace is a complicated process. I am developing programs for Geniecast to help employers and employees navigate the choppy waters of ethical dilemmas. Let me know if you are interested or go to the website.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 5, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www.ethicssage.com.