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Decoding ethical dilemmas at work….

Decoding ethical dilemmas at work



Ethical dilemmas can arise in various shades of grey and require tactful handling

Many organisations emphasise the importance of ethical behaviour. But work pressures can sometimes force employees to indulge in questionable practices. This is because ethical dilemmas come in multiple shades of grey, not necessarily in black and white. 

There is also the issue of managerial pressure to meet periodic targets. The means to achieve these targets are well defined by organizations but what matters is the end and the employee could confront an ethical dilemma.

Diverse Dilemmas

Consider the case of a trainee accounts executive. Jobless for months, he finally found employment via the good offices of a senior business development manager in an FMCG firm. Within months, the youth faced an ethical dilemma. His benefactor kept presenting invoices for a few thousand bucks, asking the youth to ‘adjust’ them. Torn between his honesty and gratefulness, the trainee didn’t know what to do.

Months later, the trainee informed the chief accountant at the head office about the situation.This was then conveyed to the top management. Funnily, this put the top brass in a catch-22 situation! The senior manager was bringing business worth crores per month. Sacking him to save a few thousand rupees made little sense. Nonetheless, it impacted organisational integrity.

The matter was resolved simply by tweaking the rules. A circular was issued that expense invoices could no longer be submitted directly to accounts. Instead, these should be routed via the department head. That ended the ‘adjustments’as well as the ethical dilemma of both the employee and the employer.

When we mention ethical dilemmas, the first thing that comes to mind is outright fraud, embezzlement, underhand dealings, nepotism and suchlike. No doubt there are clear-cut cases of ethical violations. In which case, the task of any Ethics Committee or HR Head can be cut out.

Typically, professionally-run companies have prescribed codes of conduct to prevent unethical behaviour. The moment employees are on-boarded, the ground rules are spelt out. However, it must be stressed that some grey zone incidents are not easy to address.

Many of us are familiar with hardworking but timid subordinates who face ethical dilemmas of a different kind. For example, managers could make them prepare monthly reports on their behalf. The manager then ‘customises’ the report to suit his/her convenience –going so far as to falsify sales figures. The report is then given back to the subordinate for a general hygiene check. The junior then notices that the senior has ‘massaged’ his/her sales figures.

Should this be conveyed to the management? Ideally, yes. Unfortunately, the senior is the blue-eyed boy of the boss and there is little likelihood of action being taken. Conversely, the complainant could land in hot water.

Here, the ethical dilemma is about protecting personal interests versus the organisational one. Again, there are no easy answers because the youngster may have been jobless for months. Besides, as the family’s sole breadwinner, s/he cannot risk being jobless again.

Some Guidelines

The question that arises: how does one handle such ethical dilemmas? Well, there are no easy answers. Nonetheless, here are a few broad guidelines to help you navigate such scenarios.

Avoid false hopes: The general tendency is to sweep things under the carpet in the hope that matters will work out in the end. Unfortunately, they may not. Don’t forget, to cover up one lie, you could end up with a hundred. Therefore, consider all outcomes from reporting or not reporting the incident. Remember, if it blows up later, you may have to live with it for the rest of your life. Act after considering these facts.

Don’t procrastinate: Putting off handling the issue does not help. It is best to work out ways to address the problem at the earliest. The longer the issue lingers, the more difficult it is to manage. It is also possible the perpetrator is just testing the waters. If you push back in the first instance, s/he may not repeat the transgression.

Raise questions/concerns: When told to do an unethical task, speak aloud to the delegator: “If I’m not mistaken, I believe the company policies prohibit such actions”– or something to that effect. Questioning the delegation of such a task will make the manager uncomfortable,who may then drop the request rather than risk others knowing about it.

Offer alternatives: Suggest some better ways to get the job done without breaking company laws. Again, resisting an unethical request will make your manager wary of asking you to do something like this again.

Consult your peers: Speak with colleagues or friends who have more experience and are better placed to guide you in managing the situation. They may suggest an alternative course of action that resolves your ethical dilemma.

Finally, if none of the above resolves the issue, take matters into your hands.Decide whether you want to blow the whistle and then take a stand, irrespective of the outcome. Often, seniors pushing unethical agendas will back off when it’s clear you won’t break the rules, come what may.

Rest assured, you will sleep peacefully at night, given a clear conscience. 

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