Two years ago, I was introduced to the NASBA Center for the Public Trust (CPT), my employer’s nonprofit, which promotes business ethics among professionals and students. My immediate thought after learning more about this nonprofit was, "I am a good person. I am an ethical person. Therefore, this is irrelevant to me." However, I quickly learned that being a good person does not mean you are automatically ethical.
Not all ethical dilemmas are created equal
Ethics is about right and wrong, black and white scenarios, right? Wrong. Ethical dilemmas are confusing, gray and most likely inconspicuous. Unless, you are properly equipped with the correct ethical decision-making skills.
As humans, we have a bad tendency to only associate ethics with billion dollar frauds, jail and scandal. While this may be the "sexy" version of ethical dilemmas the media outlets like to share news about, ethical dilemmas actually occur on all levels of an organization – not just the C-Suite executives who most likely have access to all the money.
A coworker who steals reams of paper from the copy room may be a blatant, familiar example of an ethical dilemma. But, what do you do when it gets complicated, messy and unfamiliar?
The gray areas are real
Let’s say you are very close to your coworker, Martha. You consider her to be a friend more than a colleague. You have been to each other’s homes and shared meals with each other’s families. Martha is wonderful and trustworthy, and has always encouraged and supported you in your daily endeavors.
Recently, you’re noticing that Martha is submitting incorrect reimbursement forms. She is consistently adding one or two more dollars in each category. You are the person in charge of signing off on these documents and submitting them to finance, and no one checks these forms but you. Trying to get her to correct her "mistake," you ask Martha to resubmit the form. She claims the numbers are correct, and you are misunderstanding.
The supervisor you could report Martha to is an incredibly difficult person who would blow the situation out of proportion and get your friend in unnecessary trouble. After analyzing the situation, you believe no one would notice the extra couple of dollars being added, and you feel you have exhausted all other options of how to fix the situation. You decide to brush it off and not think too much about it. After all, this person is your friend, and you don’t want to rock the boat.
There is always a way to navigate an uncomfortable situation
Technically, the scenario mentioned above will not result in an overnight million dollar scandal, but the truth is that it has put you in an awkward situation. The risk in this case is that the couple of dollars have the potential to escalate into something worse, potentially you losing your job. Small "insignificant" offenses are often the gateway drug that snowball into career ending situations.
Equip yourself with the necessary ethical decision-making tools
There is not an "easy fix" when it comes to certain ethical dilemmas; taking one ethics training workshop will not convert you into a noble human overnight. However, ethics training can be one of the many tools that will help cultivate an ethical company culture. Everyone, on all levels of an organization, has the responsibility to be an ethical leader, and leading by example will encourage others to do the same.
Know that you can find someone in your company to seek advice from. Maybe another peer who is exceptionally rational. Or, maybe that supervisor from another department who recently won a leadership award. Take this opportunity now and prepare yourself for the future. Find out what resources your HR department offers in regard to navigating ethical dilemmas or employee support.
You may be a good person, but that does not dismiss you from encountering a sticky, ethical situation.
For more information on ethical dilemmas, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Alexia Kammer
Business Development Specialist, NASBA Center for the Public Trust