How to Handle an Ethical Dilemma at Work

Have you ever been faced with a situation at work that’s made you uncomfortable? Perhaps you’re assigned a project with a subject matter that goes against your values or beliefs. Or a client does or says something that seems unethical. Maybe you completely disagree with the viewpoint of your manager.

If you work in a field where you don’t have input into who your clients are or what projects you work on, you may one day be faced with one of these situations. If that happens, what should you do? You don’t want to go against your morals but you also don’t want to ruffle feathers or put your job in jeopardy.

Your response or action should depend on your discomfort level. If something seems illegal, for instance, that’s a serious issue that could harm your career and your personal life and so it should be addressed. On the other end of the spectrum, if you just disagree with a client’s perspective, staying on the account might end up being a good thing. These different scenarios are further explored below:

If you suspect illegal or unethical activity:
Hopefully most workers will never find themselves in this situation, but what if your client asks you to do something that just doesn’t sit right with you? It might break your company’s code of ethics, or it may just be downright illegal. Even if you’re not sure whether something crosses the line, you should still say something.

“If the employee feels uncomfortable because the client wants them to do something improper or illegal, they should absolutely insist that they will not engage in illegal conduct and speak with their supervisor,” says Richard P. Console Jr., personal injury attorney at Console & Hollawell. “There are whistle-blower and retaliatory-termination laws in place to protect employees in those circumstances.”

If it goes against your values:
You’re assigned to a major, high-profile account, but the client sells a product that you find harmful or inappropriate. Or you discover that the company’s founder has voiced a belief that you find morally offensive. In either situation, the client isn’t doing anything illegal, but being on the account still makes you uncomfortable. What should you do?

Kathi Elster, owner of executive coaching company K Squared Enterprises and co-author of “Working with You Is Killing Me,” says to first voice your concern to your boss or supervisor, while still offering to give the work a try. “Then really give it a try, not a half attempt,” Elster says. “If you still cannot in good conscience do the work that is being asked of you, then go back to your boss [or] supervisor and explain exactly what your issue is.”

Elster says that you need to give a concrete, well-thought-out answer when making a case for being removed from an account, such as, “I’m afraid that working with this client is not right for me, I cannot service this client properly, [and] I believe that someone else might be a better fit for the client. My ethics are being compromised, and I think the client deserves to work with someone who would be a better fit.”

If you just disagree:
What about a situation in which you have a completely different point of view than your manager or you just don’t think your client is a good person? Perhaps, instead of trying to remove yourself from the situation, embrace it, because it might help you grow as a professional. “If anything, your reservations to the clients’ business, views or otherwise might help you do a better job selling them to a mainstream audience,” says Brian Massie, communication consultant at advertising agency American Timing Group. “Just remember, you’re making money off of them, you’re not married to them. A difference of opinion can be a good thing, as it encourages you to maintain objectivity.”

If you do decide to voice concerns or ask to be removed from a project or account, be certain about your decision. You should do what’s right for you personally, but know that there is always a chance it will have short or long term professional implications.


Have you ever been stuck in an ethical dilemma at work? Share with us in the comment box below!

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