Four ethical workplace dilemmas that can test you to destruction

25 May 2016

Workplace dilemmas

You want to succeed in your career, but you also want to make a difference, to do the right thing, to live life according to your own values. Should be easy, right? So long as you work hard and do a great job.

If companies were staffed by robots, maybe. But in the world where you work with human beings, there will be times when you face tricky grey areas and it’s down to your judgement on what to do.

The first thing to note is that the nature of a dilemma is that there are no zero-consequence ways out. It is genuinely not obvious what is the best thing to do. And even if you make the right call, it might put you into a bad place. The history of whistle-blowers is full of examples where someone did the right thing and was punished for it. It shouldn’t the the case, but there it is.

If you’re in a situation where the company has a clear policy on harassment, and you witness someone being harassed, that’s not much of a dilemma. You use the company’s process to report the incident.

But supposing the harassment is, well, borderline harassment. Not quite over the line, but close. And the harasser is a friend of yours, and the person being harassed is being targeted because he or she maliciously took the credit for an important piece of work your friend had done. Do the mitigating factors affect your judgement on whether the line has been crossed or not?

The best way to do avoid them is to work for a company that has a healthy, well-organised culture

Diversity guru Fons Trompenaars has tested out audiences across the world with a hypothetical dilemma that illustrates how difficult it can be. It goes like this. You’re in a car. Your best friend is driving. They’re driving too fast, and they hit a pedestrian. You’re the only other witness, and your friend asks you to lie in court to keep them out of trouble. Would you lie to save your friend?

The answer to that question, apparently, varies depending on the culture of the country where he asked it. But the one thing that all people of all nations agree – that’s a difficult situation in which they’d rather not find themselves.

If you join a values-based company that is committed to doing the right thing, you will almost certainly face fewer ethical dilemmas in the workplace. But sometimes you end up working for firms that are less than ideal simply because you need to make some money and your options are limited.

These are some specific examples of dilemmas you might face. Sadly, it’s just a small sample. There are many possible alternatives you might come across in real life, and some thoughts about what your options might be. In practice, a lot would depend on the character of the people and the companies you’re actually dealing with. Something that might work with one person might do the opposite with someone else.

You often see articles about such dilemmas and it’s all about the theory of how you should respond, and things feel very different in practice. I’ve faced different flavours of some of these (all a long time ago, happily), and I’ve added some notes about what I did in those cases. I’m not, by the way, proposing that the way I dealt with situations was necessarily the right way! It’s just one option and you have to judge each situation by all the factors involved.

1. Get the results!

Times are tough, and your immediate manager is pushing you to just “get the job done”. He’s not quite explicitly suggesting you cut corners on health and safety or quality to do this, but you feel that it’s pretty well understand that failure is not an option, and he’s not going to ask for details so long as the right result is delivered. And you can probably cut a couple of corners without it mattering too much, and it’s pretty unlikely that following all the rules to the letter will enable you to emerge triumphant.

Thoughts: You don’t want to be cutting corners on health and safety. Full stop. If you feel like you’re being pushed to skimp on quality measures, you have to use your judgement, but any company that has a culture to do this isn’t one that you want to stay for long.

In that position, I would be inclined to, politely, apparently innocently, force the boss to make a clear statement. “Can I just be clear here, boss. Are you telling me that you want to ignore this rule on health and safety?” It’s quite likely he or she will deny that’s what they’re saying, which then gives you more solid ground if the project isn’t possible without so doing. If they call your bluff, and say “yes, that’s what I’m saying” then you either accept it, make sure you mitigate the risk factors as well as you can and then get out as soon as you can. Or there’s the big shiny red nuclear button. Which, in this case, would probably be putting in a written note to the top leadership explaining that you’ve been explicitly instructed to do this thing, and you want guidance as to whether you’re required to do it. Don’t expect them to thank you for pushing that button, but if the implications of what you’re being asked to do are actually quite serious, it’s arguably the only way with integrity.

I’ve not personally had this one, although I did once go into a sort-of sales call with a manager and listened to him blatantly promising all sorts of things we couldn’t deliver in the course of the meeting. When we came out, I told him that what he’d just done bordered on fraud. He wasn’t happy, but there wasn’t much he could do about it because it was true. It rather laid down the principle that we wouldn’t just go along with the lie, and the negotiations were quietly moderated on future occasions. But I’d made an enemy in so doing, and there were probably more diplomatic ways to achieve the same end.

2. Not what you signed up for

You got the job you wanted, but soon after you start with your new company it becomes obvious that you’re being asked to do things that weren’t in the job description you applied for. Maybe you have to do a lot more cold calling than was stated, or you were told admin was only 10% of the job, but in practice it’s more like 90%. You’re aware that you’re on probation, and can be fired with very little notice, but you also hate what you’re being asked to do and are not sure if you’ll be able to cope with what the role now entails.

This could just be bad recruitment or bad management. It becomes an ethical dilemma if you think it’s a deliberate ‘bait and switch’ ploy on the part of the management.

In most circumstances, there’s not much to be done about this. You might go to the person who interviewed you and explain the situation, and ask what needs to be done to move the situation toward what you understood they were recruiting for.

But, ultimately, if the job requires doing some things you don’t enjoy doing, too bad. Knuckle on down, learn how to do those things well and plough on through it. Nobody enjoys cold calling, or admin. But these things are all building blocks for future success because you understand how things are done. How customers are sold to. How efficient systems work. You may find you end up hating it less once you become good at doing it, and your positive can-do attitude will be more likely to get you into a more varied and interesting role than being the kind of person who moans about what they’re asked to do.

I remember when I was recruited to a company many years ago, I was told that they had a target of 50 that they had to meet by the end of a six-month period, which they were three months through. I asked whether they were on track to meeting that target, and was told that they were.

On day one, I discovered that was a lie. They had zero out of 50, and had no system set up to deliver it. I spent an hour or two fuming and debating whether to hand my notice in. Then I mentally shifted, accepted that this was the nature of the challenge and decided then and there that we’d crush that target.

By the skin of our teeth, we did. When, later on, I clashed with that dishonest manager over another ethical issue (the one mentioned above in point 1 – same guy), I heard on the grapevine I should ‘watch out’ because he had it in for me. But we’d performed so well he had no excuse to do anything. When he finally left, we discovered that our unit had been cross-subsiding his other loss-making ventures. So sometimes rising to the challenge is exactly what you need to do!

3. A senior culture of men behaving badly

You’ve been promoted to senior management at last – the first woman in the company to be so. But you suddenly find that the boss is in the habit of taking the other senior managers to a local strip club periodically after senior team dinners. They excuse themselves apologetically to you when it comes time to do this, but they still head off together. You suspect these evenings are a key part of the senior team bonding process, and possibly some important things get informally decided at the same time. But you’re left with the choice of objecting to this officially sanctioned sleaze and making yourself unpopular, or else accepting second class status by meekly accepting the status quo.

I’ve never been in this situation, but I’ve known someone who was. Frankly, you don’t want to be in a company where the culture is to operate like this. The senior managers are idiots who deserve to lose their talented staff. Get the heck out and don’t look back.

But this is just an extreme example. More difficult are environments where there are day-to-day micro-aggressions. Little snippets of lad culture, any one of which might seem “a bit of harmless fun” but combine to make it clear that you’re not an equal amongst equals, and that your senior colleagues aren’t good at maintaining any kind of sense of professionalism.

I’ve known powerful senior women who got that way by simply powering through such situations, working hard to be better than the men around them whilst not pandering to the nonsense. Depending on the situation and the personalities, that’s definitely doable but it’s tough. Assume it’s going to be so, and simply resolve to beat it. Or get out and find somewhere that is more mature.

The worst thing in the world is to spend lots of time moaning about how unfair it all is. You may be right, and complaining about it might get some surface-level moderation of certain forms of behaviour. But you’ll then have senior colleagues who’ll be playing a passive-aggressive game against you, and that’s just going to be more undermining in the long run.

4. Your boss is actively hostile to you

You’ve been placed under someone who’s a very political player and they have actively turned hostile to you. It’s obvious that they’re misrepresenting you up the chain, making it look like you’re not doing well. It can only be a matter of time before they successfully poison the impression of you in the company and eventually force you out. How can you fight back when they’re the person you’re supposed to report to? 

What’s clear is that you can only survive so long with a boss that’s actively undermining you. You can fight, but ultimately the hierarchy will win out unless they do something stupid – which if they’re that malicious, they might. What you don’t want to do, is sit still and allow them to destroy your confidence and your reputation which over time they might well do. You either need to negotiate an agreement with them whereby they become more supportive and you change whatever it is that’s made them negative about you (if such a thing is negotiable) or you can fight back, but realise that you will probably lose.

This did happen to me. Someone engineered an internal ‘coup’ where they were put over me, and then they started a very active campaign of undermining me because basically they wanted to push me out. I knew that I had the support and confidence of those higher up, but they would be reluctant to acknowledge they made a mistake in this recent change. I also knew that the agenda this individual was promoting wouldn’t actually be supported if it was fully disclosed. So I decided to fight.

So, for instance, when they sent an email to me upbraiding me for going against a former instruction I’d been given – which was a reference to a conversation that had never actually happened – I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that this email was being blind-copied to other members of the senior team and it was for their benefit. So I replied, openly copying those people into the email, pointing out that conversation had never happened. It was that bad.

In the event, the individual concerned was such a manipulator, it quickly came to the notice of the senior team what was happening on a number of fronts, and they actually let it be known that I had their support, and they were impressed with the way I was handling a lot of the nonsense that was going on. Soon afterwards, that individual left the company. So good outcome in that case, but I was always aware that the odds were not with me when I decided that there was no way we were going to come to any sort of agreement.

The bottom line

The more you can avoid this sort of nonsense, the more effective you can be. You want to be successful, make good things happen, create value for society and enjoy work that you can feel passionate about. These sorts of conflicts distract you from doing this.

The best way to do avoid them is to work for a company that has a healthy, well-organised culture. Or a dynamic start-up that would be open to you helping them to create such a culture.

If you have no choice in the short term about where you are, then you might just have to deal with it. Just make sure you avoid the temptation to adapt and fit in, accepting unethical behaviour as normal and modelling your own behaviour on the standards you see around you. That can be much harder to come back from.