How to handle an ethical dilemma at work

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Ethical dilemmaHave you ever been faced with a situation at work that’s made you uncomfortable? Perhaps you’re assigned a project with a subject matter that goes against your values or beliefs. Or a client does or says something that seems unethical. Maybe you completely disagree with the viewpoint of your manager.

If you work in a field where you don’t have input into who your clients are or what projects you work on, you may one day be faced with one of these situations. If that happens, what should you do? You don’t want to go against your morals but you also don’t want to ruffle feathers or put your job in jeopardy.

Your response or action should depend on your discomfort level. If something seems illegal, for instance, that’s a serious issue that could harm your career and your personal life and so it should be addressed. On the other end of the spectrum, if you just disagree with a client’s perspective, staying on the account might end up being a good thing. These different scenarios are further explored below:

If you suspect illegal or unethical activity:
Hopefully most workers will never find themselves in this situation, but what if your client asks you to do something that just doesn’t sit right with you? It might break your company’s code of ethics, or it may just be downright illegal. Even if you’re not sure whether something crosses the line, you should still say something.

“If the employee feels uncomfortable because the client wants them to do something improper or illegal, they should absolutely insist that they will not engage in illegal conduct and speak with their supervisor,” says Richard P. Console Jr., personal injury attorney at Console & Hollawell. “There are whistle-blower and retaliatory-termination laws in place to protect employees in those circumstances.”

If it goes against your values:
You’re assigned to a major, high-profile account, but the client sells a product that you find harmful or inappropriate. Or you discover that the company’s founder has voiced a belief that you find morally offensive. In either situation, the client isn’t doing anything illegal, but being on the account still makes you uncomfortable. What should you do?

Kathi Elster, owner of executive coaching company K Squared Enterprises and co-author of “Working with You Is Killing Me,” says to first voice your concern to your boss or supervisor, while still offering to give the work a try. “Then really give it a try, not a half attempt,” Elster says. “If you still cannot in good conscience do the work that is being asked of you, then go back to your boss [or] supervisor and explain exactly what your issue is.”

Elster says that you need to give a concrete, well-thought-out answer when making a case for being removed from an account, such as, “I’m afraid that working with this client is not right for me, I cannot service this client properly, [and] I believe that someone else might be a better fit for the client. My ethics are being compromised, and I think the client deserves to work with someone who would be a better fit.”

If you just disagree:
What about a situation in which you have a completely different point of view than your manager or you just don’t think your client is a good person? Perhaps, instead of trying to remove yourself from the situation, embrace it, because it might help you grow as a professional. “If anything, your reservations to the clients’ business, views or otherwise might help you do a better job selling them to a mainstream audience,” says Brian Massie, communication consultant at advertising agency American Timing Group. “Just remember, you’re making money off of them, you’re not married to them. A difference of opinion can be a good thing, as it encourages you to maintain objectivity.”

If you do decide to voice concerns or ask to be removed from a project or account, be certain about your decision. You should do what’s right for you personally, but know that there is always a chance it will have short or long term professional implications.

One Comment
  1. And what if it’s your boss that has done something illegal, and you report it “anonymously” per your legal and ethical obligations of your licensure?  However, your agency is so small that it’s so easy for it to be traced back to you, and you are subtly and passive-aggressively harassed (but not in any kind of way that is overtly illegal).  Your boss’ boss (the executive director) engages in a cover up of the illegal behavior and forces the other whistleblower to write a letter of apology to the abuser in order to keep his job.  However, since you reported it, you have been so riddled with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression since you reported that you have not been able to function and your doctor wrote you out of work for a week.  You decide you have to resign (i.e. not return from leave) because A.) you cannot work in a place that tolerates abuse of vulnerable people and illegal cover ups, B.) you cannot face this person and maintain your mental health, and C.) you will not apologize for following the law, agency policy, and your discipline’s code of ethics.  
    How do you handle THAT ethical dilemma and, more importantly, the aftermath of that?  The fact that I feel anxious, guilty, and shameful when applying for jobs and that I’ve had panic attacks during job interviews.  The fact that I feel I cannot even mention that job on a resume or job application (I held it for only 9 weeks) even though I know that’s lying (and grounds for not hiring or, worse, dismissal.  The fact that, if I did mention it, it would pretty much guarantee I would not get hired: 1.) no one wants to hire a “tattletale” or whistleblower, and 2.) even if another employer could see I did the right thing, when they call to verify my employment history, I’m sure the past employer is ready and waiting to discredit me in whatever way they can.  (They don’t have an HR department, so it would either be my supervisor, the executive director, or the executive secretary.)

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