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Have you ever experienced an ethical dilemma in the workplace and what did you do about it?

workplace ethical dilemmaI'm looking for successful strategies for inspiration. Feel free to answer anonymously, if you like.


(Associate) |

It is a rare person who hasn't faced some sort of ethical dilemma in the workplace. Hopefully your situation isn't putting your job in jeopardy, but if it is I hope to offer some inspiration. I was hired at one company to help bring 3 branches together for cash receipts posting. The main branch had 8 cash posters, and the other 2 had 6 posters collectively. Management wanted to consolidate with only 9 people total. Throw in new software, a couple of brand new employees who had no posting experience, and you have a recipe for disaster. Working overtime often was expected of the 9 but it was obvious we needed more people. Management was pressuring me to hold daily motivational meetings, give daily updates, etc. I finally had to draw the line on overwoking my people and it came down to a meeting that i knew meant my job if i gave the "wrong" answer. I stuck to my ethics and told the truth, that we needed more people and that was the only way to get things done on time. Management didn't like my answer and I was shown the door that day. I still feel good about my decision and I ended up in a much better company for me. I guess the corollary of the story is that i didn't try to contact any of the team to tell them what happened. I didn't want to cause a division there between the workers and management. It is such a strong pull to want to be the good guy and tell them that you stuck up for them, but in the end it only benefits yourself.

Sarah Jackson
Title: Associate Editor
Company: Proformative
(Associate Editor, Proformative) |

Proformative offers 400+ business courses with free CPE, many on ethics.

Lynn Fountain
Title: MBA CGMA CRMA, Past Chief Audit Executiv..
Company: Business Consultant
LinkedIn Profile
(MBA CGMA CRMA, Past Chief Audit Executive, Business Consultant) |

I applaud you for standing for your morals and ethics. It is often a hard thing to do especially in today's job market. I've found myself in similar situations where I had to make a choice.
As for coping strategies, everyone handles things differently. A few things I've learned is 1) Try not to dwell on the situation. Move on. Ensure you are cautious when speaking about the situation to others because it can come off negative even if you don't intend it to be so. 2) Learn from the situation. When we interview for positions, we hope we are hearing what we want to hear. Sometimes we allow ourselves to hear things that we think we want to but should have been warning signals. Think about your take-aways from the event you experienced and how would you or could you approach it differently the next time. That isn't to say you didn't do the right thing, but if there was something different, what would you have done.

Last, the hardest thing I sometimes find is to not beat yourself up over something that happened. It can make us a very unhappy person. Use it as a learning and then accept that not everyone has the same morals and thought processes as you might. Ultimately, you have to be able to live with yourself. You did what you felt was right so now allow yourself to put it behind you.

Topic Expert
Christie Jahn
Title: CFO
Company: Prime Investments & Development
(CFO, Prime Investments & Development) |

As Anon points out I think this happens to everyone at some point if not multiple times. Working with people creates interesting situations. It must be addressed. If you let it get swept under the rug you are doing a disservice and setting yourself up for future problems. The statement is broad, so I am not sure if you are the one that has to handle it or are you just aware of a situation? At any rate tackle it swiftly, objectively and consider the people involved and any regulatory concerns or lawsuit concerns later on.

(Finance Controller Central and Eastern Europe) |

Great for you that you were vertical. This will only give you benefits in the future. you will respect yourself more and this will force others to do it as well.

I faced the dilemma and I did it the right way. Although the situation was not so serious. A colleague of mine faced a serious one, she was vertical and things turned out good for her because the higher layers (bosses of her boss) are ethical as well. I think ethics are always the way to go. Easy to say no? :)

There are two moments in that situation of yours where more alternatives could have been considered:

1) how to achieve both: communicate that staff should be increased AND keep it safe for yourself. Often we choose to think that only one goal can be achieved and we have to choose because one excludes the other. Maybe if you think back to that it possible you've said something, or in some way, that triggered the management decision? was it just plain truth delivered? No other sharp remarks from your side since you anyway expected to be fired after? I don't know the situation, you might be right and the bosses were 'at fault' and in this case you are better off without them, as you mention.

2) not informing your subordinates. Maybe it would attract bad words about you, that you created conflict/ division as you say. However, in my opinion, to give to your people the true facts, no bias, would mean being ethical also towards them. It would help them understand their environment. If not, think about a former subordinate of yours, being offered your former position. If he would know what happened to you, he would not accept this position and find himself dismissed after. I would not agree that informing them would generate this or that effect. It's also for them to decide. They must be grown-ups.

Also in the story of my colleague, the abuse wouldn't have even begun if the guy before had informed of the unethical position of the same boss. In the end it's about how far you see your responsibility. My position is that the responsibility for your subordinates doesn't end together with the contract.

I realize all this is debatable, that's my point of view.

(Associate) |

I don't want to change the topic away from the original poster who asked for strategies, but I wanted to respond to the second point in the above response. I still believe that there are times when you should not tell your subordinates what is happening. I understand your point, but if someone wants to accept the position I left, they can certainly come to me directly and ask me why i left. I may not be able to tell them the exact reason, but I could offer advice. In my opinion, telling many people the reasons I left would cause chaos, rebellion, and loss of respect between the workers and management.
On the other hand, perhaps a strategy to use during ethical dilemmas is based upon biblical teaching. The gist is that when someone wrongs you, you go to that person to try and work things out. If they don't listen, you take a 3rd person to mediate. If then that doesn't work, you involve more people. It seems like some of the posters here did exactly that and it worked.

(Co-CEO) |

I was working for a Fortune 500 Washington, DC beltway bandit. My boss, who also worked for the company, was getting paid under the table by a competitor to sabotage our contract so they could get it.

I tried to sound the alarm by contacting his supervisor. The water was already poisoned by my boss, that I was a troublemaker and should not be trusted. So, his supervisor refused to believe my report.

A month later, my boss ordered me to install pirated software onto the server. I refused, and when he immediately told him to do it again, I told him to go f himself because it was illegal.

The next day, I went to his supervisor to report him. Again, he refused to believe me, and said that my boss caught me trying to install the software and that I was now on probation.

My annual review was not good, and they let me go.

A month later, my former boss was hired by the federal agency, and he immediately cancelled the contract with my former company, and awarded the contract to the company he was on the take to.

Over 100 people lost their jobs because of that incident. It hurt, because it took me a long time to find a new job. But, I was slightly comforted knowing that I did the right thing, and that the boss who refused to believe me lost his job.

Now the guy who was underhanded. I can only rest in the knowledge that God promises to curse them that curse me. That may not comfort many people. But, it does me.

Plus, after a long time in DC, I moved away and this event was what helped me make the decision. I moved to better weather, and the people are a lot nicer. Plus, I have a job I love that may not pay as well, but provides a lot more satisfaction.

Carla Gordon
Title: Accountant
Company: Govt
(Accountant, Govt) |

If that person is now working for the Federal Govt, I have a problem with that. Why aren't you reporting this? There is a false claims act or something like that, which you can report under.

Carla Gordon
Title: Accountant
Company: Govt
(Accountant, Govt) |

Yes. I started looking for another job, then quit.
--It isn't going to get better if you stay. Figure out what you can live with (and remember there will be a day of reckoning, maybe in this world, certainly in the next). Then stay or go.

(CFO) |

There is a reason that people post things on this forum anonymously. Myself included.

Evil is everywhere.

(Finance Controller Central and Eastern Europe) |

No, evil is not everywhere :) just people

(CFO) |

Well, it was a dilemma, but it was clear what needed doing from the get go. My CEO was stealing from the company I had recently begun working at. As soon as I uncovered it and did enough digging to be quite positive that this was a genuine issue and that it was not just a matter of my interpretation, I gathered evidence and had to go to the board. This was not the sort of thing you bring to the offender and give them a chance to explain themselves, this was multi-faceted and clear on its face.

After seeing what I laid out in a confidential meeting with two senior members, the board agreed to meet with the CEO, and he was fired. It was a stressful time for me and not a good time to be CEO-less, but you can't leave something like that in your company.

(Chief Financial Officer) |

I have had two. In one instance, the press release related to our earnings report was 'incorrect' although I had no evidence that the underlying numbers were wrong - just the story around the numbers. A couple months later I discovered that the CFO and CEO were giving a false story to the board of directors on something else. I went to the SEC. I got a letter back thanking me and telling me they already had an open investigation (although they couldn't give me details.) I landed on my feet.

In the other instance, our CEO physically attacked me and threw a large leather chair at me because I refused to lie on our financials. He wasn't in a position to fire me but I got out of there as quickly as I could. I have a few friends in well-located positions and one of them came through for me in a big way. I think a big part of the reason why he vouched for me was that he knew I was honest.

Dishonest accountants and finance people can go to jail. Better to stay on the good side of the line.

Chris Shumate
Title: Accounting Manager
Company: Dominion Development Group, LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Accounting Manager, Dominion Development Group, LLC) |

The biggest issue around ethics is that many are subjective. One could argue that it is unethical for an owner of a company to expense expensive trips for their own personal reasons with no benefit to the company or its employees. If the company is owned by one person they likely view it as his/her money anyways. So why can't they use it for their personal reasons. Whereas others in the company will view their decision as wasting company money to take extravagant trips. The owner has an ethical bent that it is okay; the employees view it as an ethical dilemma.

I have seen what I would call ethical dilemmas for me because of my worldview. What I have to choose to do is view it through the lens of legalities. If something is illegal it is certainly unethical regardless of what the person perpetrating the act thinks.

Since many ethical issues are subjective I would determine my level of acceptance, what I see as wrong but isn't bad enough for me to leave. Then after the line is crossed it is time to leave and seek out other employment. So, how much can you put up with? Where's the line?

(IT Specialist) |

As a Director of Finance for a trade association, I ran into an issue with a new Executive Director. They came in with a contract that provided an auto allowance, but the way the contract was written the allowance was clearly taxable. The Executive Director asked for the full allowance up front which I provided with the normal deductions for a taxable payment. They were immediately in my face about the deductions, continually repeating that they had the same form of contract at several other organizations and the auto allowance had never had it treated as taxable income. (This person was also an attorney and had drawn up the contract themselves.)

The way I handled the situation was to say that I was unfamiliar how to process this on the books so that it was not taxable and asked if I could involve our accounting firm and have them guide me. We had a full audit every year, and this would avoid questions later on. This was agreed to, and a few days later the accounting firm sent over one of their partners to explain (after they reviewed all of the materials) that the way the contract was drawn up the allowance was taxable and explained how it could be better handled in the future. Situation handled.

Needless to say, within 60 days I was gone from that position. Not that I did not see that coming at the time of the confrontation. In accounting you frequently are asked to stretch reality in some way to make someone happy. Some accommodations are not that bad, but every individual has to decide where the line is and how not cross it. In this case I was comfortable with my decision and never looked back.


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