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Is it Ever Proper to Sacrifice your Ethics in the Workplace?

Our Values define who we are in Life and in the Workplace

Acting in accordance with company values in the workplace is the key component in developing an ethical organization culture. Still, are there any situations where one’s values can be compromised for the greater good? If so, what are those situations and what are the ethical responsibilities of a person who encounters such dilemmas?

I recently had a former student contact me for advice about what to do in a situation where the company was losing money, unable to raise funds from outside sources, and bleeding cash flow. As the accountant, she was told to find a transaction at the end of the third quarter to boost profits by 25%. Her boss thought a higher profit level would enable the company to successfully execute a loan package of $1 million with the bank. She was told in no uncertain terms that if she couldn’t identify and record such a transaction then her supervisor would and then later blame her if the company got caught.

The reader was inclined to go along with the request of her supervisor who had ensured her it was a one-time request, and he emphasized the need to be a team player. After a great deal of soul searching she agreed to make the appropriate entry. However, her conscience got the best of her before telling her supervisor so should e-mailed me for advice. She remembered the offer I had made to my ethics students to call whenever they found themselves in an ethical dilemma and just wanted to talk about it before acting.

I asked whether she thought there were instances when it was acceptable for a person to compromise her ethics in the workplace. She quickly answered in theory, no, but in reality perhaps -- yes. I then asked her to define five of her core beliefs (values) in the workplace. She thought for a while and answered honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, responsibility, and accountability. I was impressed that she had recalled that lesson from the ethics class.

I then asked her to evaluate her impending actions using those values. She stumbled right away on integrity because she knew it meant to act with the courage of one’s convictions -- in a principled manner. But, she asked, aren’t there situations when one can deviate from her workplace values in a limited way? I reminded her she was now talking about situational ethics, which means a person can deviate from her values because of the issues faced in a situation, pressures imposed by one’s supervisors, and the promise that it was a “one-off” request.

I then asked her to project a month or two; a year or two, down the road and envision a similar request is being made. Will she do the right thing at that time even though she caved in to the pressure in the initial occurrence? She got the point – another classroom discussion – that she already would have begun the slide down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope” if she goes along with wrongdoing in the first instance. She knew a cover up might ensue and her further involvement would only make a bad situation worse.

Ethical behavior is not like a spigot you can turn off and then on whenever you feel so inclined. Ethical behavior requires sticking to one’s values when the going gets tough regardless of the perceived costs of acting against the company’s wishes. Ethical decision-making requires consistent behavior backed by a willingness to stand up for what one believes is the right way to behave.

I ended my conversation with my past student by asking her to think about one thing: When do we take a stand in the workplace and put our values ahead of all other interests?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 21, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a Professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: