Ethical Dilemmas
at the Workplace: What to Do?

Professional behavior often differs from our everyday behavior patterns. At work, you have to be friendly and polite in situations where you’d be bursting with temper outside of work. At work, you mostly need to keep emotions (and sometimes opinions) to yourself and be matter-of-fact about issues that happen.

It’s more complicated if you’re a manager: maintaining a functional work environment is your responsibility (even if it’s not formalized), and you have to find constructive ways to address performance issues, work-related problems, and employees’ behavior.

Here’s where workplace ethics comes into play. Being different from our everyday life ethics, it can cause dissonance between what you want to do and what you should do. Below, we’ve collected the most common ethical dilemmas that people face at work – and have to solve.

Dilemma: What to mention and what to omit at a job interview?

Ethical dilemmas can appear already at the job interview, especially if you have a not so perfect employment history. Should you mention you were fired from your previous position? How to explain why it happened? Making up a perfect cover story is tempting, but what if the employer finds out the truth?

Even if you don’t have a history of firings and workplace conflicts, there can be doubts about what to say to your potential employer. For example, when asked why you left your previous job and the first wording that comes to your mind is “I escaped a viper nest”, how to be honest about the actual reasons of leaving and not come across as unprofessional, rude and overly demanding?

Solution: Be up front about important facts of your previous employment: what you liked, what you disliked, why you left. Even if it’s a firing due to a severe misstep, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person who should never work again. Admit you committed a mistake, and emphasize that you learned your lesson. That said, resist the urge of involving emotions: be mindful about the wording you choose. Just be matter-of-fact about the bad and the good at your previous workplace.

Dilemma: Running personal business at the workplace

Having a side hustle is not a crime (at least as long as it doesn’t violate your employment contract). Many have one. Sometimes, it can require your urgent attention while you’re at your day job. You have obligations to both employers, so what to do?

Or, say, a friend just sent you a link to a gorgeous dress from an online shop, and now you’re thoroughly studying the entire summer collection on their website, while your workday is ticking away. Just to disconnect from the dull routine. Nothing illegal, but… doesn’t feel right.

Solution: Make sure to separate your side hustle from your main job. Don’t take on side projects that would require your immediate attention throughout your regular workday. Keep in mind that it will jeopardize your reputation sooner or later. As for googling something personal during your work hours, using your work phone for personal calls, or printing out your personal stuff with a company-owned printer, review what your company’s policies say about using company-owned resources, and strictly follow them.

Dilemma: Should I report inappropriate behavior of a colleague?

It’s your coworker you’re friends with, and they are being rude to clients. Or using racial slurs. Or bragging about how they violated the company’s policies and had zero consequences. Normally, it’s supposed that a behavior like this should be reported, but since you’re friends… You never wanted to play that mean trick on a friend.

The dilemma doesn’t necessarily involve friendship though. You might be afraid of the consequences of reporting a manager’s behavior, or trying to not be petty. The frequent choice is not reporting – but is it right?

Solution: Not reporting inappropriate behavior is basically nurturing it. Addressing it timely is the appropriate way to handle it: talking to the offender personally, or initiating a formal procedure with manager or HR department – reporting rudeness, policy violations, sexual harassment, racism, or other severe issues is essential for keeping work environment functional and inclusive.

Dilemma: How do I address unprofessionalism?

Now it’s your employee, and they burst into tears when hearing that you are not excited with their performance, even asking you to not give them feedback. Or it’s a summer intern who would always choose the least appropriate topic for a water cooler talk and never notice the sudden awkward silence. Or an employee who never misses a chance to police others for clothes and tattoos. Or, say, an otherwise nice person who is dropping F-bombs over and over again.

The problem is, you’d be happy to have them stop all of it, but you have no idea how to explain basic things like this. Or you don’t want to be that grumpy person no one wants to communicate with. Or it’s something that seems not so severe and perfectly excusable. How to handle it?

Solution: In most cases, people don’t realize they’re doing or saying something wrong until someone addresses it. This is especially true for interns and young employees at their first post-college job, who didn’t have a chance to adopt professional norms. So you need to get rid of the “if I ignore it, it will go away” mindset and be clear with your employees and interns about their behavior. The key point is being kind and willing to help: frame it as something that will block them from great jobs and networking opportunities in the future – and keep in mind you’re doing them a favor by addressing their lack of professionalism as early as possible.

Dilemma: How do I admit I’ve committed a mistake?

You’re on the IT team, and you’ve granted access to confidential data to someone who’s not supposed to have it. Or you’ve sent your valued customer’s invoice (with a decent discount!) to another customer who’s paying regular price, and now both are not excited, to say the least. Or you’ve messed up the client database and no one can use it. Plot twist: no one knows it was you.

What to do? Silently wait until it settles up or admitting it was your fault? They say it’s good to be honest, but in real life penalties are highly likely as soon as the culprit is found. And you definitely don’t want any penalties…

Solution: It can sound hard and disappointing, but admitting the mistake is the best way to handle the problem. The sooner the problem is known, the better are chances to minimize its consequences. Besides, getting in even more trouble if they find out it was your mistake is definitely not what you’re aiming at. Be honest, and make it clear that you’ve learned an important lesson from your mistake and it’s guaranteed that you’ll never commit it again.

Dilemma: I disagree with management’s decision – what do I do?

Your grandboss appointed a new manager in your department, and you realize they’re the least competent person at their job. Or work you dislike and are really bad at has been assigned to you and saying no is not an option. Or your coworker overshared a bit and you’ve learned they have received a better bonus than you, despite you’ve been working harder. How to address it?

Solution: Actually, there’s no “how-to” for solving this dilemma: each case is individual. The good news is, it’s always a chance to make an important decision and improve quality of at least your work life. You can keep your disagreement to yourself and continue enjoying the benefits of your job, or suggest a better solution, or speak up as a group with your coworkers and influence the unpopular decision.


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