ERIC Identifier: ED334468
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Lankard, Bettina A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education
Resolving Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace: A New
Focus for Career Development. ERIC Digest No. 112.
The changing nature of the workplace is propelling ethics training to
institutional priority. Today's work force is composed of people who are
more diverse than ever in nationality, culture, religion, age, education,
and socioeconomic status. These people enter the work force with differing
backgrounds, values, goals, and perceptions of acceptable behaviors. Many
of them have career expectations that will be difficult, if not impossible,
to realize in today's society. This diverse, multicultural population of
workers is being asked to work together in a spirit of cooperation and
respect for the good of the organization and the public they serve. However,
on the job, workers face decisions that have implications for their job
security, their salaries, and the success of their employing organizations--decisions
that bring pressures for them to protect their own interests, sometimes
at the risk of losing their personal and corporate integrity. "There's
more pressure on people in organizations than there ever has been to do
more with less and adjust quickly to changes. In response to that pressure,
people may cut corners...may engage in expedient but questionable behavior"
(Kirrane 1990, p. 55).
Some issues facing society and business include downsizing of staff,
pollution control, disposal of toxic waste, depletion and allocation of
scarce resources, cost containment, changes in law and technology, employee
rights, discrimination against women and minorities, and product safety.
Issues such as these are complex and they create ethical dilemmas that
are difficult to resolve. In the medical field, for example, new technology
has created new problems or dilemmas for which there are no easy solutions.
The following are examples of these dilemmas:
--The allocation of scarce resources (Who is selected to receive a kidney
--The withdrawal of treatment (Under what conditions can treatment be
withdrawn from a patient?)
--The use of costly resources (To what extent can expensive life-saving
treatment be offered, under what conditions should it be an option, and
who should assume responsibility for payment?) (Cassell 1989; Fisher and
Because of the complexity of ethical dilemmas, "corporations are rushing
to adopt codes of ethics. Business schools are scrambling to add ethics
courses. And hundreds of consultants are being hired to put 'integrity'
into corporate cultures" (Byrne 1988, p. 56). Vocational and career development
personnel are recognizing the need to prepare students with higher order
decision-making and problem-solving skills that will facilitate negotiation
and conflict resolution in the workplace.
RESOLVING ETHICAL DILEMMAS AND VALUE CONFLICTS
Discussion, analysis, problem solving, and decision making are critical
to the ethical resolution of conflicts. Four competing claims are (1) conflict
between two or more personally held values; (2) conflict between personal
values and the values held by another person or the organization; (3) conflict
between basic principles and the need to achieve a desired outcome; and
(4) conflict between two or more individuals or groups to whom one has
an obligation (Kirrane 1990).
The resolution of conflict cannot rest in the hands of one or two individuals.
All stakeholders in a situation must be involved--for legal as well as
ethical reasons. Medical decisions often involve a multidisciplinary team
that consists of some or all of the following: patient, family, significant
others, nurses, dietitians, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists,
clergy, and so forth. In this way, the knowledge, opinions, and expertise
of all "stakeholders" in the decisions are considered. The same principle
can be applied in business, with decisions based on the expressed viewpoints
of all stakeholders in a given situation--even indirect stakeholders. Potential
clients should also be recognized as stakeholders because their choice
to do business with a firm may be based on the firm's reputation for ethical
behavior (Sonnesyn 1990).
Resolving ethical dilemmas, therefore, requires interpersonal and negotiation
skills as well as the new application of employability skills--honesty,
ability to work cooperatively, respect for others, pride in one's work,
willingness to learn, dependability, responsibility for one's actions,
integrity, and loyalty (Lankard 1987). For years, employers have sought
workers with these skills and school curricula have stressed their importance
for successful employment. Today, businesses are training their employees
in critical thinking and conflict resolution skills required for ethical
decision making. Schools are also focusing on developing students' critical
thinking skills, but to date little has been published about the application
of those skills in resolving potential ethical dilemmas specific to given
ETHICS TRAINING AND ITS APPLICATION
All levels of workers--management to entry-level--need to recognize
the factors that guide ethical behavior and develop strategies for assessing
their personal and organizational ethics. Blanchard and Peale (1988) present
three "ethics checks" to help individuals decide what is right:
1. Is it legal? Will I be violating either civil law or company policy?
2. Is it balanced? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as
well as the long term? Does it promote win-win relationships?
3. How will it make me feel about myself? Will it make me proud? Would
I feel good if my decision was published in the newspaper? Would I feel
good if my family knew about it? (p. 27).
The purpose of training is to make employees aware of the issues they
encounter and enable them to deal with those issues in an ethical manner.
Training should help employees (1) recognize which decisions involve ethics
(not all decisions do); (2) understand values--the organization's, their
own, and other people's; and (3) weigh the potential impact of various
business options on those values (Kirrane 1990, p. 56). Ethics training
is beneficial in its focus on ways to apply the organization's credo or
code of ethics in a business setting. Ideally, they offer a mechanism for
discussion and problem solving to lead workers through the resolution of
complex issues. "Actually, ethics training almost invariably pays off in
better decisions and in a more committed work force" (Kirrane 1990, p.
This view supports the trend noted in recent surveys. "This year's findings
of TRAINING's 1990 Industry Report indicate that 36.9 percent of organizations
with more than 100 employees provide some type of ethics training compared
with 26.6 percent in 1989 and 19.7 percent in 1988. A 1988 survey of 2,000
U.S. corporations...roughly mirrors TRAINING's findings" (Thompson 1990,
IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOL CURRICULUM
Training in ethical decision making is a critical part of vocational
and career development. In THE MORAL DIMENSION, Amitai Etzioni recommends
integrating ethics training and ethics discussions into the curriculum.
He suggests that any decision of consequence has a moral dimension that
must be considered in the decision-making process (Thompson 1990).
Discussions and analyses of case studies are particularly effective
in developing ethical decision-making skills. Participating in such learning
activities requires active listening, questioning techniques, verbal and
nonverbal communication, and reasoning. Talking through a situation to
achieve an ethical solution gives students or trainees new insights into
the conflicting issues within a situation, the variety of possible options
and the consequences of each, and the awareness that they, as workers,
will have a personal responsibility in conflict resolution. The selection
of case studies should be directed to the day-to-day dilemmas workers in
a given occupation will face on the job. The problems and issues must be
ones that are relevant to a given job/occupation and ones that are recognized
as difficult to resolve.
Another strategy for ethics deliberation--one used frequently by business--is
the initiation of organizational ethics committees. Such committees are
formed to offer to management and staff objective recommendations on matters
that are difficult to resolve. Some organizations have a hotline to which
employees can direct their calls for help in resolving an ethical dilemma.
As an educational strategy, business leaders could be invited to the classroom
to form an "ethics committee" to which students can direct questions they
have about ethical dilemmas they expect to encounter.
Although using case studies and resource people to bring workplace situations
and experiences into the classroom are good educational strategies, students
also need to receive training in critical thinking, conflict resolution,
reasoning, communication (speaking and listening), and group process to
prepare for the ethical deliberations they will encounter as they progress
in their careers. Miller and Coady (1986) point out that today's ethical
dilemmas require students to be equipped with higher order decision-making
and problem-solving skills necessary to cope with increased individual
responsibility for shaping their work environments and managing their career
development. Mediation skills promoted by Miller and Coady (1986) include
1. Assertiveness--the ability to stand up for one's rights without infringing
on the rights of others.
2. Empathetic listening--the ability to listen to the speaker's complete
message and to respond appropriately to the speaker's needs.
3. Principled negotiation--working together to create an agreement fair
to all parties, regarding the problem and not the other persons as the
4. Evaluating risk--recognizing, evaluating, and coping with risk.
Miller and Coady also recommend that in teaching mediation skills the
instructor play dual roles of facilitator and participant. As facilitator,
the instructor guides the students through the learning process. As a participant,
the teacher models the behavior and qualities of an ethical worker (such
as showing respect for the ideas of all, a willingness to listen), demonstrating
how to learn rather than instructing students in what to learn.
Critical thinking skills required for decision making and mediation
skills required to implement those decisions are important to job progression
and success. Most individuals will work for a number of businesses and
in a number of jobs. They will be required to participate in decisions
affecting both the quality of the work environment and the production process.
They will need to interact with a multicultural, diverse group of coworkers
to solve job-related problems that have ethical considerations. Courses
that offer insight into the unique habits and practices of individuals
from various cultures are necessary for the career development of all workers.
Blanchard, K., and Peale, N. V. The Power of Ethical Management. New
York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988.
Byrne, J. A. "Businesses Are Signing Up for Ethics 101." Business Week,
February 15, 1988, pp. 56-57.
Cassell, E. J. "Ethics in Medical Education." Journal of Continuing
Education in the Health Professions 9, no. 4 (1989): 225-228.
Fisher, M. M., and Raper, R. F. "Withdrawing and Withholding Treatment
in Intensive Care. Part 1. Social and Ethical Dimensions." Medical Journal
of Australia 153 (August 20, 1990): 217-219.
Kirrane, D. E. "Managing Values: A Systematic Approach to Business Ethics."
Training and Development Journal 44, no. 11 (November 1990): 53-60.
Lankard, B. A. Practice Ethical Behavior. Connections. School and Work
Transitions. Columbus: The National Center for Research in Vocational Education,
The Ohio State University, 1987. (ED 288 981).
Miller, P. F., and Coady, W. T. Vocational Ethics: Toward the Development
of an Enabling Work Ethic. Springfield: Illinois Department of Adult, Vocational,
and Technical Education, 1986. (ED 288 062).
Sonnesyn, S. E., ed. "Four by Four." Training and Development Journal
45, no. 3 (March 1991): 29-37.
Thompson, B. L. "Ethics Training Enters the Real World." Training 27,
no. 10 (October 1990): 82-94.