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Role of Management and Leadership in the Workplace

Living by ethical values in the workplace

We are what we do and how we handle ethical conflict

Acting in accordance with company values in the workplace is the key component in developing an ethical organization culture. If organization sets an ethical tone from the top on down, then workers should do whatever it takes to act consistently with those values. However, what should you do if a member of top management crosses the ethical line? This is a question that a past student of mine raised in class. She wondered whether her loyalty obligation to her supervisor and the organization outweighed sticking to one’s ethical values.

I thought hard about the question and the asked her to first consider the virtues we had discussed in class and how they should affect her decisions and actions in the workplace. She quickly mentioned 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 I can deviate from my workplace values just one time? I reminded her she was now talking about situational ethics, which means it is acceptable for a person to deviate from ethical behavior one time because of the issues faced in a particular situation, pressures imposed by one’s supervisors, and the promise that it was a “one-off” request.

I then asked what she would do if her best friend came to her with the same dilemma. What would she say and why? I was trying to get her to look at the issue in a less passionate way and more objectively than was the case because she was directly involved in the dilemma.

She thought about it and told me she would advise her friend not to go along with wrongdoing because it was wrong to do so and might come back and bite her a later date. I agreed and suggested she do the same in her situation. However, she went on to argue that she has a family to support whereas the hypothetical friend, so she had assumed, was single. Understandably the stakes were now higher.

I asked to think about how she would feel if she went along with the wrongdoing. Might she be asked to do it again because she put herself in an “I gotcha” position? What would she say to her children if they knew that she had compromised her values? Would she be proud to explain her actions? Is she serving as the kind of role model she wants for her children?

Eventually the student came to realize that it wasn’t worth compromising one’s integrity to go along with what someone else tells them to do when they believe it to be wrongful behavior even if they are one’s boss. Being an ethical person in the workplace is not easy. Pressures may exist to cover-up wrongdoing and even engage in fraudulent actions. Losing one’s job is a real fear especially in today’s economy. Still, if we give in to the pressures of those in the workplace who act wrongly and have authority over us even one time, we can bet it will happen again.

To me the basic questions are: When do we take a stand? Is it ever worth compromising one’s values in the workplace? How much is my reputation for trust worth to me? How do I want to be remembered at the end of my life? These are the questions that I ponder each day as I speak about and write about ethics and teach my students to strive to be better than they really are.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 5, 2015. Dr. Mintz is a Professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: