USAA Tips: How to react to an ethical dilemma

Content provided courtesy of USAA | By Chad Storlie

What are they doing? Did she just say that? Why would the company choose to take that action? These are just a few of the questions that could run through our mind when we hear of a potential ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma is when there is no clear case of right vs. wrong and no laws have been violated, yet something about the situation just does not feel quite right to our moral sense of well-being.

When I was a Special Forces Officer in Bosnia, I had the role of doing contract negotiations for rental vehicle contracts whose value approached several million dollars. During one negotiation session, a contractor slid across a picture of a beautiful sailboat on the Adriatic with a picture of $50,000 in a suitcase placed on the deck of the boat with a champagne bottle. This was not a clever negotiating tactic, it was an attempt at bribery. The rest of the story? I reported the contractor, the contractor was disqualified from bids for two years, and I never got to see the sailboat. Handling an ethical dilemma well always solidifies your values and beliefs.

Follow these options to help you wade through the considerations involved in an ethical dilemma.

Ensure You Understand What Happened.

Ethical dilemmas can become non-dilemmas quickly when we ensure that we have the full story and do not take other people’s views, perspectives, or word of mouth. This is a good lesson for everyone because understanding both sides and ensuring that you understand all the facts before stating that something was unethical is critical.

Violations of “Fairness” Trigger Dilemmas.

The clear majority of workers have a belief in a continual level of innate fairness and equal treatment in similar situations by their peers, coworkers, customers, and bosses. That is, it is inconsistent treatment that creates the belief that an ethical violation has occurred. This is great advice for workers, customers, and management to strive to treat every person and every situation with deep respect. When there is inconsistent treatment present in a consistent or common place situation, then, more likely than not, an ethical violation has occurred.

What If Everyone Did It?

Another effective way to understand if an ethical violation occurred is to apply the leadership by example principle to an extreme case. What if everyone did or was required to do that situation you believe was an ethical violation? What would the effects be to the people and to the organization? If the resulting situation would create widespread financial loss, huge disparity of treatment, and ongoing stride, then an ethical dilemma was present.

The Newspaper Test.

Pick a leading newspaper or news source. What if the action or actions of the activity in question were placed in the headlines for all the world to read and to evaluate? Would anyone be embarrassed? Would the authorities be interested? Would people be proud to show their children the headline? If something must be kept quiet because, “people will not understand,” or people would be embarrassed if everyone knew, then an ethical problem usually exists.

Is There a Case of Cultural Confusion?

In the United States, we believe in equal treatment for all, but that is not necessarily the case in all countries. In some countries, the chief executive of a company can have vastly different treatment than the average worker and no one bats an eye. If there is a case of how an ethical situation is viewed between cultures, then it may be a case of cultural understanding or cultural perceptions rather than an ethical situation.

Could It Be a Topic at the Next Staff Meeting?

The final test is simple. Would you be willing to discuss it at a staff meeting? If not, then an ethical situation exists.

The final piece of advice in dealing with an ethical dilemma is to do something. To maintain a sense of ethics, everyone must stand strong and stand together to ensure that ethics and ethical treatment is a constant focus.