In a typical working day, you’re unlikely to be bombarded with ethical dilemmas. Nevertheless, working life will probably involve maintaining ethical behaviour such as not taking the credit for a colleague’s ideas. In most cases, working ethically is just a case of doing what feels right.
Other times, genuine ethical dilemmas rear their heads. Also called moral dilemmas, these are when you face a choice between two options, neither of which resolves the situation in an ethically ideal manner. In a business setting, a dilemma might be as follows:
- A toy manufacturer is struggling during a recession – and the jobs of its workers are hanging on by a thread. Redundancies before the new year, so you hear.
- But by the skin of its teeth, the company is offered a contract to export Christmas gifts into developing markets – but is asked to price so low as to have to reduce its standards. It’ll mean that many kids in far-flung countries may find their toys fall to pieces by Boxing Day. Should the company agree to the contract?
Most often, moral dilemmas don’t involve illegal activity – or a situation where there’s a clear right or wrong. What you do in the following scenarios depends upon your perspectives, boundaries and how much risk you want to take.
- A work colleague who is under severe pressure asks to include your sales in their targets – ‘for once only’. You really like your colleague.
- You overhear a boss saying that a work colleague you like is going to be made redundant in three weeks. Do you let your friend know?
- You meet a friend for a night out. That friend is also a potential business partner. Your friend suggests you put the evening’s food and drink on expenses.
Professional bodies and ethical dilemmas
Many occupations have rules, systems, support networks and procedures designed to help prevent ethical dilemmas, especially where the job involves a duty of care. Here are a few examples.
Ethics for criminal barristers
Criminal barristers have a professional obligation, known as the cab rank rule, to accept instructions in any field in which they profess themselves competent to practise, regardless of any personal views about the case or client. However, if a client confesses their guilt to their defence lawyer but does not want to plead guilty, the barrister can continue to cross-examine prosecution witnesses but would not be able to build a positive case for their client without being in breach of the professional code of conduct. ‘In those circumstances the defence barrister would be required to withdraw from the case unless the client was prepared to proceed on a basis that would not mislead the court,’ explains Gerwyn Wise, assistant secretary to the Criminal Bar Association and practising criminal barrister at Garden Court Chambers.
Ethics for social workers
We asked Gavin Moorghen, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, how professional ethics work in his profession. He explains: ‘Unlike in medicine or law enforcement, where a lot of decisions are based on “black and white” margins, social work lives in the “grey”. Every decision will often have some ethical dimension. For example, in complicated child protection cases you may have ethical dilemmas in what is best for the child, weighing the crucial safeguarding decision based on behaviour, parental responsibility and risks, culture, environment etc.’
Gavin continues: ‘One facet may affect the other and there is no magic formula. But social work theory combined with experience and support from those around you will build your ethical “toolkit”, allowing you to navigate complex cases with more confidence.’
In terms of a professional dilemma that he personally has faced, Gavin comments: ‘A previous case of mine involved two siblings where the parents were separated. There had been a history of neglect and emotional harm. My assessment was that one child was better with the father and the other with the mother. However, practice, evidence and even the Children Act suggests siblings should be kept together. I made a judgement call to separate the siblings because of the individual nature of the case. It required me to consider the ethics (duty and the greater good) and be prepared to stand by the assessment and talk through challenges from my manager and the family courts.’
Ethics for humanitarian workers
International development is another area were the stakes involved in moral dilemmas couldn’t be higher. Richard Corbett, humanitarian lead for Oxfam GB, explains: ‘Deciding whether to send humanitarian workers into an area that is being bombed, or who to prioritise with limited aid supplies – these are the kinds of life-or-death dilemmas we face. Thankfully, there are internationally agreed humanitarian principles, including those of neutrality and impartiality, so individuals rarely make such judgements on their own.’
Ethics for debt collectors/credit managers
It’s certainly possible for professions to shift ethically. These days, in an organisation such as Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council, the old career of debt collection has developed into credit management where, according to its website, the onus is upon ‘identifying individuals at risk of falling into trouble and taking steps to assist’.
Philip King, Chief Executive of the Institute of Credit Management, says: ‘Much of the work of credit managers is about finding out about your customer before you do business with them, and therefore avoiding possible ethical dilemmas.’
Choosing an ethical profession
Making a career choice on the basis of ethics is a case of asking yourself questions. Do you:
- Seek work in an ‘ethical’ career?
- Want to avoid jobs where there is a high probability of ethical decision-making being required (because you don’t want to make a mistake ethically)?
- Want to avoid careers or industries that you perceive as unethical?
Are some professions unethical? Largely this depends upon how you define morality. If you work for the arms industry, it’s very possible its products will be used to kill someone. Morally, is this a red line? Or do you think ‘The way I feel about arms use depends upon the context’ or ‘Their use is not my responsibility; that lies with others’?
Nursing often tops public polls of ‘most trusted profession’ but does that make it the most ethically desirable?
Alternatively, you might prefer to choose a well-paid career but then make large donations to good causes. You could argue that a rich, expert investment banker who donates lots of money to charity makes more of a difference to humanity than one care worker (because of the impact of their donation and that, technically, their specialist role is less easily replaceable).
Ultimately, you need to do work you feel comfortable with.