Ethical Decisions: Deciphering the Dilemma

In our last post, we explained that an ethical dilemma is a situation in which there are multiple “right” courses of action, each one appealing to a different ethical value—like honesty, loyalty, freedom, respect, etc. We gave you this real-life dilemma to mull over: 

Your co-worker Chuck recently returned to the office after being sick for several weeks with pneumonia. As a result, he has fallen a bit behind in his work and is trying to get caught up on several projects. For your part, you've been incredibly productive this quarter; in fact, you’re nearing completion of a very important project that is time sensitive. It will be a huge accomplishment not only for you personally but also for the organization. One day, Chuck approaches you to ask if there is any way you could take some time out of your schedule to help him get caught up with his projects. You're conflicted because you're so close to meeting your own goal and getting a “win” for your organization; if you start taking on other people’s work, you know it will impact this project negatively. On top of that, Chuck has always been a little rude to you and his other co-workers and doesn't always help others when they ask for his assistance.

Readers chimed in with some great ideas:

  • For one thing, remind yourself that this dilemma is about what’s best for the organization, not a personal issue between Chuck and any of his co-workers. Asking your manager how they’d like you to prioritize your efforts would be an effective way of making sure the most important tasks get done first. 

  • Another great option: take the opportunity to have a conversation with Chuck about your workloads. Asking for help despite his past behavior might be a signal that Chuck is willing to change, and discussing how you could work together to address your and his projects might lead to greater understanding for both of you. And that’s never a bad thing! 

There are multiple ethical values at play in this scenario. A couple of the big ones are RESPONSIBILITY and FAIRNESS

On the one hand, your sense of responsibility to complete your own work and to do what is best for the organization might compel you to decline Chuck’s request. You might reason that helping Chuck out might be a nice gesture to him personally, but it’s not worth jeopardizing the well-being of the organization. 

On the other hand, your sense of fairness—helping others out when they’re down, lending a hand if you’re able—might prompt you to reason that being supportive of a coworker is worth delaying a goal for a short period of time. 

Our ethical decision-making model outlines how to work through ethical dilemmas step-by-step, including how to prioritize your values in what looks like an impossible decision. Or better yet—how to find creative solutions that benefit everyone involved. It prompts us to ask questions that might otherwise go unasked: 

  • Who else is affected by this situation? Is it just me and Chuck? 
  • What don’t I know that might affect my decision? Are Chuck’s projects actually more important or on a tighter timeline than mine? 
  • If my decision were publicized on the front page of the newspaper, would I be proud of it? 

Check out our Ethical Decision-Making workshop and other popular curriculum on our products page https://businessethicsalliance.org/elevate-ethics-academy, and call us at 402-280-2235 to schedule training workshops for your team!