How have you handled ethical dilemmas at your workplace?
November 21, 2008 8:33 AM   Subscribe

How have you handled ethical dilemmas at your workplace?

I'm living in a foreign country and I recently accepted a job at a company which helps send high school students of that foreign country to a Western country for a homestay program. On the surface this job looked okay aside from the anal-looking manager. Essentially, a religious organization that wanted someone to help maintain contacts with partner organizations, review applications and conduct interviews of prospective students, etc. etc. etc. However, a week into the job, I've began to feel uncomfortable about some of the things that have been happening.

I was a little uncomfortable when they asked me to spruce up the applications of the applicants, but to me, it was acceptable -- I mean, twisting the truth is commonly done on resumes anyway -- so I got over that. But there have been other things that have been seriously disconcerting to me -- lying about medical records, lying about applicants language abilities, lying about under-the-table agreements that breach contracts of the partner organizations, etc. And this is all only one week into the job. From a religious organization no less.

So a part of me tells me to bail out of this job (which was hard to find in the first place in this foreign country, and may eventually lead me to returning to my home country due to difficulty in finding a suitable job here, which is actually somewhat okay with me, but it would make most of the time I spent in this foreign country pretty meaningless), that sacrificing my ethical concerns would make me absolutely hate working at this job. Another part of me says that in most offices there are many ethical concerns that slide, that it's just how business is done and that is what making money is about (it doesn't help that this foreign country/region is somewhat known for this kind of mentality) -- this company needs to have their bills paid and I also need to have my bills paid.

So, I am wondering, "What kind of ethical dilemmas have you face in your workplace, and how have you handled them?"

By the way, this is my first office job and one of my first full-time jobs.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
How much do you really need the money/job? I had a job that asked me to selectively discriminate against people and I refused. I got suspended for 3 days (without pay) but they didn't fire me. And they certainly could have, because it was a dime-a-dozen job. But then again I had worked there for probably a year.

So you can weigh your time and influence there and then judge whether taking a stand will get you fired and quickly replaced, or whether you can in some small way change the culture. Because that's really pretty sheisty what they're asking you to pull.
posted by cashman at 8:46 AM on November 21, 2008


I've worked in the non-profit world for about 10 years now. Two years ago I was job searching, and ran across a very small start up organization run by an Ivy league grad. They were fundraising for children diseases. I was a bit wary because everything was so unstructured, but I thought I could lend my expertise to putting best practices into place, and helping build the organization. After two days I realized that they were engaging in shady practices, and only donating 25% (the bare minimum) to their mission. And on the second day, I discovered that the boss was being pursued by a local news station's "Shame On You" reporter for mishandling donated cars. I was out of there without a second thought, and told them not to worry about paying me.

Leave this job, and don't even worry about putting it on your resume. I'm sure it will only get worse the longer you are there. Someone could get hurt or end up in a bad situation if information is being misrepresented. You don't want to be a part of that.
posted by kimdog at 8:54 AM on November 21, 2008


I would leave if it breaches your personal ethics.
posted by scabrous at 9:11 AM on November 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


it would make most of the time I spent in this foreign country pretty meaningless

Sorry, I know this isn't a direct answer, but just to say that this seems a poor reason for quitting this job, whatever else you end up deciding. Experience abroad is inherently meaningful; time spent realizing what you don't want to be doing is very meaningful, too...

posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:15 AM on November 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


So, I am wondering, "What kind of ethical dilemmas have you face in your workplace, and how have you handled them?"

With all due respect, I don't think the answers you get to this question are necessarily going to help you make your decision. People have varying ethical standards and varying degrees of willingness to sacrifice a job in order to behave according to those standards. Some respondents here will tell you that they quit jobs for smaller violations than you list; others will say they stayed in jobs that were far worse. Neither will necessarily help you make your own decision.

This might: step back from your specific situation for a moment. Pretend that you were looking for a job and ran across an ad that stipulated ahead of time that part of your work would include the actions that you listed in your question. Would you accept that job?

The answer to that question may help guide you, because it strips away the built-in rationalizations ("i need the money," "i can't find another job in this country," "it would make by stay here less meaningful," etc.) and focuses on what you think is ethically appropriate behavior.

Let me be clear here that I am agnostic on whether what you are being asked to do is right or wrong. You may decide that these things are perfectly acceptable. But try to make that decision first, without thinking of the consequences of acting on that decision. Then you can decide whether you are willing to take the next step, whether it is staying or going.

Finally, there is also a compromise position: make it clear to your supervisor that you are not willing to do things that you think are unethical. There is a pretty good chance that you will be fired; and even if you stay, those practices will likely continue. But this is one way of keeping your job without doing things you consider to be wrong.

Best of luck.
posted by googly at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Twenty years from now, when you look back on this situation, what will you wish you had done?

Do that.
posted by Class Goat at 9:38 AM on November 21, 2008 [4 favorites]


aaargh, I meant "a poor reason for NOT quitting this job". ie, don't stay in the job just for fear of rendering your time abroad meaningless.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:48 AM on November 21, 2008


Think about how this job is adding meaning to your time in this country. Are you going to look back on this experience and think ¨Ah, my time in Xistan, where I learned to falsify medical records!¨? How is doing things you find unethical making your time there more meaningful?
posted by yohko at 10:49 AM on November 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


"sacrificing my ethical concerns would make me absolutely hate working at this job"

That's all you need for this situation, it would seem to me.

More generally, though, every company "needs to have their bills paid." This does not make unethical and illegal behavior appropriate or excusable. I tend to think of ethical dilemmas as situations where there's an actual gray area (i.e., at what point does editing a resume/application turn into lying?). What you're talking about is a clear choice between right and wrong: lying about medical records and business deals is wrong; it's also potentially harmful in a concrete way. What are the consequences of lying about the medical records? Might some student or host's health be put at risk? And what are the consequences of lying about business deals? Is your organization cheating its partner organizations?
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2008


At my previous job, the CEO hired a number-cruncher to extract data from user surveys to extrapolate (for marketing purposes) numbers that would show steady increases in user satisfaction/efficiency/income gain/etc. thanks to our product. The thing was that, as the cruncher got into the data, he found that the numbers trended flat or, in a few cases, down. The CEO, though, wanted numbers that showed big upward trends.

So, he ordered the cruncher to get more granular with the numbers. Instead of using month-to-month trends, he was to start looking week-to-week to find an upward tick. If that didn't work, he was to look at day-to-day trends. Eventually, the cruncher found a 3-day period where things ticked upward sharply (before resuming their more flat trending) The CEO then ordered the cruncher to generate charts that extrapolated this 3-day uptick into a projected year-out trend, for use in marketing materials. He was to avoid labeling the time increments as "days" and use something more vague, like "time periods" or somesuch, so as to make the data look like it represented a long period.

The number cruncher refused to produce such blatantly misleading data and promptly quit.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:56 AM on November 21, 2008


Another part of me says that in most offices there are many ethical concerns that slide, that it's just how business is done and that is what making money is about

I can't add much more than what has already been said, but in my experience the types of things you've described are not what doing business and making money are about. There are cases where people are asked to do unethical things, and this probably won't be the last time it happens to you, but giving up your ethics is by no means a requirement for finding work in general. It can get people fired in some cases (and you might get fired for refusing to do what you've been asked to do) but there are plenty of jobs out there that don't require doing anything unethical.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:19 PM on November 21, 2008


If you can avoid being part of the problem of unethical business, do so.
posted by batmonkey at 12:35 PM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


it would make most of the time I spent in this foreign country pretty meaningless

The time you have already spent is sunk costs.
posted by Pigpen at 1:47 PM on November 21, 2008


Classgoat has the right approach:

Twenty years from now, when you look back on this situation, what will you wish you had done?

I always tell my students to use the "mom" test to decide on ethical behavior questions: "Can you tell your mom what exactly you are doing/have done without hiding any of the facts, without feeling ashamed by it, or without feeling compelled to come up with excuses and mitigating factors to justify your actions?"
posted by tuxster at 2:09 PM on November 21, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm against the Mom test. You really don't know what people's moms are like.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:22 PM on November 21, 2008


The value of the Mom test is subjective. I don't tell my mom I read Metafilter, for starters.


From a completely pragmatic POV, if it's (a) hard to find a job, and the mentality there is money > ethics so most jobs would be along the same morally grey lines; and (b) you want a job so you can stay in the country ... then you're stuck. If, however, either of those things aren't fixed, it sounds like you'd be better off quitting.
posted by Xany at 4:08 PM on November 21, 2008


I hate to be the one to sound a darker note (in this case), but you are now in possession of information which might be able to sink your employer, if you decided to make the effort to publicize it in the US.

If you do decide to quit, I think you should do it on a basis of health problems or the opportunity for a better job, for example, to avoid giving your employer incentives to take preemptive action against you to neutralize anything they think you could say about them-- such as accusing you of embezzlement, perhaps.

And I do think you should quit.
posted by jamjam at 5:24 PM on November 21, 2008


The value of the Mom test is subjective. I don't tell my mom I read Metafilter, for starters.

A couple points of response, although this isn't really central to the question anonymous asked anymore:
(1) The mom test is indeed subjective, but I think that is pretty much the point. Ethics to a large point is subjective as well. Of course I realize this can be discussed endlessly -- there is many that would argue there are certain absolute rules of ethics, while others would argue ethical values depend on subjective factors including societal norms, cultural values, and family upbringing.

(2) The question isn't what you tell or what you don't tell to your mom. The question is could you tell your mom (or anyone else you give value to their opinions of you, if for some reason mom is the wrong person to choose)? I don't tell my mom everything either, such as that I read Metafilter. But that's more because she wouldn't care. More likely, her response would be "huh?".... That doesn't mean I would have felt ashamed or compelled to justify myself, if I, for some reason, had to tell her I read Metafilter (and then try to explain what it is).
posted by tuxster at 4:40 AM on November 23, 2008


Moms I have known, (just off the top of my head):

Gays are going to hell.
Women shouldn't let their arms be seen in public.
Women who aren't married by 20 are defective.
If you use tampons it's the same as masturbation, which is a sin.
If you marry someone you should stay with them and support them even if they're beating you/ molesting your kids/other horrible thing- after all, you took a vow.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:28 AM on November 24, 2008


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