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Phoenix Forward

5 workplace ethical dilemmas

Ethical values can affect business decisions

Good business practices aren’t just about the bottom line — they’re also about morality.

Savvy professionals understand how to balance profit with ethics, and do it consistently. “To me, if you are ethical, you act the same way whether you’re being watched or not,” says Jim Lipot, a human resources consultant and instructor in the University of Phoenix MBA program.

He shares five sticky office situations and how to handle them:

Shady HR decisions

Managers are responsible for hiring, firing and promoting people, and it’s important they do so ethically. “Many managers are not prepared to go through an [objective] ranking process of candidates,” instead relying on personal bias, Lipot notes.

He shares several examples of improper human resources practices. “I’ve seen managers consider factors like the staff member’s age, family or ability to locate another job [when firing],” he explains. “I even saw one manager use employees’ religious affiliation and medical conditions [against them]. All were unethical.”

Instead, Lipot recommends that supervisors consider only qualifications and performance when making decisions.


Business is often “all in the family,”  but Lipot believes that’s not always a good thing. “There are still a few company owners who want to provide work to family members, even if it is detrimental to the company,” he says.

Instead, Lipot recommends that businesses hire only the most qualified personnel — blood relation or not. “If you must hire relatives, the supervisor must have the authority to discipline them. Otherwise, you set a poor example.”

Bending the rules

Company policies exist for a reason, and employees shouldn’t abuse them, Lipot notes. “A common dilemma is what to do when you see another employee taking [unfair] advantage.”

He offers this example: “Many companies allow employees to take smoke breaks, but sometimes workers will take a cigarette break while also holding an impromptu outdoor meeting. That’s not only unhealthy for the other people attending; it also effectively gives the smoker another cigarette break.”

You should report abusive behavior like this to your human resources department, according to Lipot.

Waste and theft

If you’re on the corporate clock, all your actions should benefit the company.

“When you waste resources and time, you are effectively stealing from your employer,” Lipot says. This can include swiping office supplies, browsing the Internet and making personal calls. Ethical employees use work materials wisely and conduct personal business on their own time.


Breaking the law

Although rare, some companies place their employees in impossible positions. If a supervisor demands that you do something you find unethical or even illegal, such as fabricating financial data or violating federal employment laws, you have options.

“In these situations, make reports to the appropriate governing bodies,” such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the EEOC or law enforcement, Lipot says. Don’t quit if you can avoid it, but be prepared to get fired or find another job quickly.

“Get an attorney and document everything,” he recommends. “Be honest but discreet.”