It might be a co-worker who thinks printing off six copies of her 4,000 page manuscript is just making good use of the office photocopier. It might be your manager s padded expense account that you re charged with cleaning up. Maybe it s something else: something you find so ethically questionable you re losing sleep.
An ethical dilemma is any issue that violates an employee s right, causes injury, creates an inequity, unjust treatment or causes disrespect toward employees, says Patricia Ayala, Human Resources Director at SeatonCorp, a staffing and recruiting firm based in Chicago.
Those kinds of issues certainly aren t new, but the way we re reacting to them has changed over the past few years. Ayala says that these days, people are more likely to speak out when something doesn t jibe with their company s policy or their own moral compass.
I think that more employees are willing to come forth because reported scandals have revalidated their personal values, Ayala says. If there isn t a designated channel for resolution [within the company], employees are likely to take action into their own hands.
In her latest book, The Career Troubleshooter (Amacom, 2006), career expert and former assistant dean at Stanford Business School Sherrie Gong Taguchi agrees. Workers today wring their hands less and are more willing to take action when faced with an ethical dilemma.
We are more aware of our values and their importance in living our lives in sync with them, says Taguchi. We see many examples of people making a real difference by calling out something wrong or simply telling the truth.
Not that all of this warm, fuzzy honesty doesn t come with a price, however. That, after all, is why an ethical dilemma is a dilemma at all: there is usually a risk involved if you re the potential whistleblower.
The first thing to do is assess whether or not you even need to do your best Serpico impression.
Katie Metzner, an educational software editor in Chicago says that she d be willing to be a whistle-blower if she knew about something corrupt going on where she worked. But while she s not afraid to stick her neck out, she says she d have to be sure it was worth it. I m not going to judge someone s moral code on a box of paper clips, she says. But if it was something major, I think it should be made known.
So how do you know what s OK and what isn t? Does a box of paper clips really matter?
Each organization is responsible for establishing its own code of ethic and social policy, which includes both implied and explicit standards, says Ayala. And if taking home a box of paper clips is something that you know to be against the rules and it bothers you a great deal, you can certainly decide to let the proper person know. But when it goes beyond office supplies, things get a little more complicated.
Coming forward with information brings risk, says Taguchi, but she s quick to point out that not telling also involves risk. She advises employees to figure out exactly what it is that they know and what kind of impact it will have if the beans are spilled. Once you ve decided there s a legitimate ethical problem at hand, deciding how to handle it comes next.
Assess how much risk there is and if it is something you are willing to take on. What will happen if you come forward what are the best and worst case scenarios? What could happen to you and your job? Taguchi notes that wondering what might happen if you do not come forward is crucial question, too.
Both Taguchi and Ayala offer similar advice if you ve decided to be a watchdog: Get some backup. Ayala, a human resources professional for over 10 years, says HR is your ally.
The buck stops with HR, says Ayala. For HR, the recourse is to report unethical issues to management. This might not always be easy, since management might not be ready or willing to change the unethical behavior. If that happens, she says, HR knows that going to the next level, the appropriate government agency, may be necessary. In her book, Taguchi writes that HR is a strong resource if you ve decided to come forward and also suggests going to a powerful mentor or a well-respected senior manager with whom you have a close, trusting relationship.
The best ethical dilemma is one that you never have to deal with, of course. According to Taguchi, there may be some ways to avoid them from the start. Do your homework on the companies you re considering working with, she says. When interviewing, ask value-based questions such as, Tell me the company values, or How and why do people get promoted? and What would merit someone being fired? If your standards and your company s are in sync, your moral compass might never have to be tested.
Taguchi remembers Stanford professor Jim Collins s black and white advice for his students.
He challenged us to live our lives as though it would be reported on the front page of the New York Times, she remembers. Live with full-disclosure transparency: do and be what you and your loved ones could be proud of if you read about it.
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