14 Tips For Dealing With Ethical Dilemmas At Work

Stephanie Dennis
10 min readSep 7, 2023

Ethical dilemmas at work are never, ever easy. Certainly comes with a lot of challenges, a lot of things to think about, and a lot of things to overcome. On top of that, there are definitely a lot of questions, topics, or areas of concern that you should think about.

Let’s dive into some of the things you should think about and/or some of the questions that you should be asking yourself before you make a decision on what your next step should be when faced with ethical dilemmas at work.

  1. Are you directly impacted or involved?

Sometimes there are going to be times when we are directly impacted. We’re directly involved in the ethical dilemma, willingly or unwillingly. Let’s be honest, sometimes we get sucked into some bullshit!

So don’t take it the wrong way, but ask yourself are you an outsider looking in or are you in the thick of it? And there’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s just a reference point that you need to think about and not to say it’s going determine if you do something or what that might be. It’s more so to think through the whole situation and to be forward-thinking about how it might impact you and how you might want to approach a situation.

Because your approach might be very different if you’re observing. It’s kind of some fucked up shit, right? Or if you’re involved in it directly.

2. How are you feeling about what’s going on?

How you feel about things matters!

So check in with yourself and your feels, you know, those things called feelings? And then think ‘are the feelings that you’re feeling influenced by past experiences?’ Right? There are many times I an think of where something happens or something is said, or I’m part of a certain situation and I’ll go from like 0 to a 100.

And while the situation may warrant the 0 to 100, my past experiences are pushing me to that 95. So thinking about what your feelings are, thinking about that next step, asking yourself is this fueled by other situations or past experiences? It also probably would be helpful to name your feelings if you’re having conversations about the issue, right?

If you’re talking to other people instead of saying, you know, this is some fucked up shit, it would probably be more beneficial to say ‘this is really frustrating, it makes me feel X, Y, Z versus just saying wtf.

3. Is there someone you can talk to about it?

Ideally, this is someone you trust at work who knows what’s going on. However, if that puts you at risk, if that’s going to fuel the fire, or start drama. No go. That’s not the goal. The goal here is to effectively and efficiently work through an ethical dilemma, not to fuel the fire and make it worse, right?

So if someone doesn’t know about it and isn’t involved, they may not be the best person because now you’re pulling more people into the chaos. It could be, let’s say your best friend works with you. That’s someone you know you like, you trust, and that’s who you need to confide in.

If you’re not sure if you can completely trust them with all of the information, give hypothetical examples. Don’t use people’s real names. Use person A, person B, etc. And if they know you well enough, they might be able to connect the dots. However, if you try and keep it as anonymous as possible, it’s not going to come back to you.

4. Ask yourself, do you have all the information?

And this, it’s going to be a hard question to answer definitively, however, oftentimes, we have one side of the story or we have a little nugget of information. Oftentimes we don’t have a full story. Sometimes we do. But ask yourself, is there more? Am I missing something?

And this is really fueled by giving people the benefit of the doubt because sometimes what presents as this big, huge problem because you have a nugget of a piece of a puzzle and the puzzle itself is a thousand pieces and you got a little corner of one puzzle piece. With that, once you have the full picture, there may actually not be a problem there after all.

5. Are there any questions that you can ask to gain further understanding or to gain more information to gain those insights that you may or may not be missing?

Ask questions, ask follow-up questions, try and to get the full picture. This may be hard but think of it as an investigation. If you were an HR person investigating something, what are the questions you would ask or who would you want to talk to? Again, be careful with this because you’re not wanting to bring down morale.

You’re also not wanting to cause drama and to start shit either. However, you are trying to fully understand. So if you’re directly involved in a situation, maybe other people who are directly involved are the people you can reach out to and ask some follow-up questions to.

6. If you feel comfortable, talk to your manager or maybe your manager’s manager.

Sometimes, let’s be honest, our direct manager is part of the bullshit, right? So, you know, maybe going one level above your manager and having a candid conversation, if the issue is with your boss, might be the right option. Again, if you feel comfortable, try and address things directly. There have been times when I’ve had managers where we just weren’t seeing eye to eye and the root cause was we just had very different communication styles.

If you’re in that situation, having a simple conversation along the lines of ‘hey manager, here’s the best way I can receive information. This is really going to help me get organized and help me get you exactly what you want as quickly as possible.’

7. If you feel comfortable, talk to someone from HR.

The same thing applies to talking to your manager if you feel comfortable. I know sometimes HR or the people & culture team might feel a bit daunting. Also consider the company culture as well. For example, does your organization talk about having a culture of transparency or ‘open door policy’, etc.? If your people & culture team has an open-door policy, they’re very approachable and they have proven themselves in the past to work through issues and dilemmas with employees … great. Those are probably signs that they might be a trusted advisor.

Now, if they’re the type of company that every time a problem comes up, they’re firing people, maybe we don’t talk to them, right? So think about it from different perspectives.

They should be there to support you. That said, their number one goal is to support the company, and their secondary goal should be to support all of the employees. Which is what HR and people and culture teams should be. Versus what ends up being reality. We are not naive in knowing sometimes those are two very different things. It is what it is. I wish I could change that, but I am but one person.

8. Offer alternative options to whatever issue the ethical solution is.

So if we have an ethical dilemma, and let’s say we’ve tried options 1, 2 and 3, it’s not really working, offer up options A, B, and C, right? We need to be bringing solutions to the table.

It’s helpful to know what the issues are to figure out the true root cause, cuz sometimes surface level we don’t know the actual problem. We think we do, but we don’t always bring more solutions to the table. Everybody has a different way of thinking and they’re going to approach problems differently. So brainstorming and having that collective thought and solution will be helpful.

9. Reference any policies and or employee handbooks.

Oftentimes there are going to be things written down in a policy, in a handbook, in an SOP, in a best practice procedure, whatever form of documentation it might be. This is probably on some sort of a Wiki, Notion page, internet type of site, SharePoint, Google Drive, or whatever platform your company uses.

If your organization’s documentation isn’t clear on your particular topic or issue, sometimes it’s best to talk through these policies. Granted, not always, but when issues arise, it can be beneficial to have a conversation about the policies themselves to allow clarity for everyone.

Let’s face it, it is possible for those pieces of documentation to be outdated. However, to CYA (cover your ass), that might be a good place to start.

10. Think about what’s the broader impact.

Let’s say there is a manager who is being inappropriate with their direct reports, that has a very different impact than maybe a manager who created a report with some creative numbers, right? Both might be bad for very for very different reasons but the context and broader impact matters in each situation.

Also, it’s helpful to be thinking through the broader impact if nothing changes. Ask yourself, what happens if something changes? What happens if nothing changes? And what are the impacts of both of those situations?

Use the answers to those questions to offer clarity on what you should be doing next.

11. What are your options moving forward?

What are your options? Do you stay and work it out? Do you realize this is some BS and you can’t work for a company like this and you need to leave. Maybe you have financial goals and you know you need to leave but need to stay for 3 more months.

Think through all of your different options and even research them. Go on Google and look into how to deal with XYZ problem. There are hundreds of thousands of articles, blog posts, podcasts (like mine here), etc. that are going to have direct experience and insights to whatever the issue is you’re dealing with.

This is not going to be the first time, whatever this problem is, that it has come up and been documented online for you to look at.

12. Consider why the person would do it.

Thinking about this one is the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes. Now, I’m not saying the why is going make anything correct or morally right, it just might help you gain a little bit different perspective.

Again, doesn’t make anything that’s wrong, it just might help with conversations, maybe some empathy, some understanding, and so on. Even if someone is doing some fucked up shit, we’re human, and everybody, well, I shouldn’t say everybody, most people deserve a certain level of empathy and to be talked to like a human. Let’s face it, we can’t treat people like shit and then expect them to want to cooperate with us and talk to us and make things better.

13. CYA

This deserves it’s own point. Cover your ass! Reference policies, reference the handbook, email or document slack (or whatever platform y’all use), etc. When possible, use written ways of communication and if that’s not possible, get creative.

For example, let’s say you have to have a Zoom meeting, how do you document those without recording them and making you CYA-ing too obvious? The way to document those conversations is to take notes, diligent notes. After the meeting, send said notes to whoever was involved and say, Hey, team here’s the notes I took, here’s our follow-up items, here’s what we all agreed these items are going to get done by, let me know if I missed anything (or something along those lines). The vibe you’re giving off thought, is more like I’m trying to help keep everyone accountable, keep us on track, etc. you don’t want the vibe to be CYA. You’re human, you work with humans (hopefully lol) and the idea is you might have missed something important.

14. Ask yourself — Do you still want to work for the company? For the person? For this team?

Know this, it’s okay if the answer is yes. It is equally okay if the answer is hell fucking no.

Either way it’s the correct answer because it’s what’s going to be best for you. Think about your own morals, your own ethics, your own conscience, right? What can you live with? I know if I do something that I don’t think is right, the guilt eats me alive.

Think about your career choices. If something big is happening company-wide, is this even going look good on a resume if I stay? We all have examples that come to mind when we hear about the bad misdoings in corporate America and for those that stay with those organizations, sometimes struggle to find a new role down the road.

Either way, you need to put yourself first, no one else will do that for you right?

What’s next?

Once you’ve done your analysis, thought through the problem and solutions, and have completed your research, what do we do now?

Go ahead and create a plan. What are the next steps? If you’re not sure, work it backwards. Write the goal you want to achieve and take it back, step by step, until you have a clear path to your desired outcome.

Think through if there is anything else you need in order to decide on next steps? If so, the plan is get whatever you need so you can move forward.

Once that is done, now it’s time to take action. You’ve gathered your information, you’ve asked your questions, you’ve got this, you can do it, I promise.

I know ethical dilemmas are hard, but we’ve taken time, we’ve reflected now it’s time to do something about it.

I hope this was helpful and thank you for reading this far, I appreciate you :)

You can check out my podcast (basically audio versions of my articles) here.

Have a great rest of your day!

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Stephanie Dennis
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Real Talk Enthusiast & Experience Optimizer