How to Handle Ethical Issues in the Workplace

7 min. read

What are ethical issues and dilemmas in business today? We look at example problems, how to handle ethical issues in the workplace.

Managing ethical issues in the workplace is something that needs to be done to accomplish a positive and productive culture. If ethical dilemmas are ignored, the probability of serious and lasting problems appearing increases. Cracks in the fabric of the business risk becoming a death sentence if ethics are ignored.

What are ethical issues in the workplace?

Business ethics is when you view business behavior through the lens of ethical values. When we talk about a code of ethics we mean the code which an organization follows when it comes to ethical guidelines and best practices to follow. It sets out a behavior code for honesty, integrity, and professionalism. Business ethics is relevant both to the conduct of individuals and to the conduct of the organization as a whole.

American Heritage Dictionary defines Ethics as "A particular system of principles and rules concerning moral obligations and regard for the rights of others; rules of practice in respect to a single class of human actions and duties: as, social ethics; medical ethics; business ethics."

Miriam Websters dictionary defines it as "a set of moral principles: a theory or system of moral values." or "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group."

Simply stated, it is the values and moral agreements that we make and how we act in a group setting.

Ethical implications in business apply to all aspects of business conduct. Ethics and compliance in the workplace need to be implemented from the boardroom to the front office and the warehouse. Ethical behavior entails adhering to a code of ethics that guides how companies treat their employees and suppliers as well as their customers. Business ethics needs to be taken into account when it comes to marketing and production strategies as well as sales techniques and accounting practices.

Ethical problems in businesses, through a slip in ethical behavior or gross ethical violations, can be catastrophic for an organization.

Examples of ethical dilemmas in business today

There are many current ethical issues in businesses today. Failing to adhere to a standard of ethical behavior is a bad idea in the modern world we live in. People talk to each other more than ever before. We communicate fast and effectively using technology. Lying about where a product comes from or how it is made could lead to a cancel culture event on social media. Be aware that ethical behavior is not just a nice thing to do, it could mean the difference between failure and success.

Examples of ethical issues in the workplace:

1. Compromising On Product Quality

Focusing on profit is obviously something that has to be done. In purely economic terms, it is the way the business perpetuates itself into the future, keeps the bills paid, and pays its employees. However, when a company or organization skimps on the quality of the product, that in turn leads to headaches. Compromising product quality is not where business owners should go to squeeze a few extra bucks out of the operation. Your customers will also notice the change in the quality of the product and this could lose you more than a few dollars.

Imagine being a loyal customer of a high-end protein powder product. You love the product and get good results using it. Then one day the product arrives and it tastes funny, or of a lower quality. You're not likely to want to keep that subscription, are you?

2. Harassment and Discrimination

Harassment and discrimination exist in America. It isn't something that should be ignored or minimized. It needs to be addressed head-on. Racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and wage inequality are all costly ethical issues that organizations and businesses are faced with today. Both employers and employees are affected by discrimination. Sweeping discrimination under the carpet won't work and it won't save you cash. It will actually cost you money.

According to a 2019 news release from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), $505 million was paid out for victims of discrimination in the private sector and government workplaces.

Ethical behavior vs unethical behavior overall needs to be a priority but the fact that harassment still exists in the modern workplace is unacceptable. People need to feel safe, valued and respected in their work environment. A Code of conduct needs to be adhered to and part of any company policy should be that harassment and discrimination are not tolerated. Nepotism should be equally discouraged.

3. Health and Safety

Work conditions and workplace safety should be part and parcel of every business's culture. If the work environment is unsafe, your ethical standards are not high enough. Unethical business practices include putting your employees in harm's way when it could be prevented. 7,397 people die every day from occupational accidents or work-related diseases. (The International Labour Organization)

2018 Occupational Safety & Health Administration top 10 most frequently cited violations:

  1. Fall Protection: People were not protected on the sides and edges as well as leading edges.
  2. Hazard Communication: Things like classifying harmful chemicals were not clear enough and better communication is required. If people don't understand what they are dealing with catastrophic events could unfold.
  3. Scaffolding and ladders: Scaffolding, as well as ladders, was reported as unsafe according to required resistance and maximum weight numbers. If your scaffolding is unsafe and you are on a construction project it could end up with people getting badly hurt or worse. Plus it could void insurance which would be devastating.
  4. Respiratory Protection: Emergency procedures and respiratory/filter equipment standards need to be adhered to or respiratory illness could affect your staff. You have to be aware of the physical health risks your employees and team members have to deal with daily. Their well-being is paramount to your success.
  5. Machine Guarding: Machines can be extremely dangerous. People have lost digits and even limbs to unsafe machinery. Machines were reported as not being clear that they required guarding. Power presses, guillotine cutters, and shears are supposed to have point-of-operation guarding in place.

Other points of contention for health and safety were electrical wiring methods and controlling hazardous energy such as oil and gas.

4. Letting Clients Go

Walking away from a project or client isn't an easy thing to do. Having a contract doesn't mean you are tied to that person or company indefinitely. If you feel that the clients' business practices are unethical it could put you in a moral conundrum. Clients can also be toxic. They suck time and energy out of your team and nothing seems satisfactory.

There's a saying, "Is the juice worth the squeeze?". If the client is starting to jeopardize the rest of your operation, or you are losing team members because of a toxic relationship then it is time to address it. It may be an ethical dilemma but boundaries need to be set. If things aren't working, your decision-making process can only have one outcome, the relationship needs to end.

5. Responding To Employee Social Media Behavior

An employees' social media behavior outside of work still has an effect on how you and your company are perceived. It isn't an easy one to judge and there are certainly conversations to be had about when it is right and appropriate to step in, however, if the person in question uses social media to generate harmful messaging or worse hate speech or racism then it behooves you to distance yourself from them as fast as possible or your entire organization will be seen to be condoning their unethical behavior.

Ethical issues in the workplace are not a simple fix and they change as the times change. Years ago we would never have had to consider things like the digital presence of our team members or social media accounts. Similarly in days gone by safety and health were not thought of in the same way and the challenges were different. Making sure you are an ethical business with an eye to the future means you care, and caring about your employees puts you in the driver's seat when it comes to your own future.