In most workplace situations, there is a clear-cut right way or wrong way to act. However, we occasionally run into ethical scenarios where there are positive aspects to two differing actions and we are left with a dilemma. These “competing rights” situations can be extremely stressful.
Here are a few examples:
It’s right to communicate information that might help other people…
But it’s also right to respect the confidentiality of information if you have agreed to do so.
It’s right to follow through on commitments you’ve made…
But it’s also right to address a higher priority task that suddenly needs to be completed.
In this exercise, your group will think about situations where there are conflicting rights and develop strategies for resolving them.
Set up the Activity
Break the group into several smaller groups of 2-3 people and have each small group work on one of the following situations (or have them come up with one of their own).
• Going to work when you’re obviously sick and possibly contagious.
• Telling an insecure co-worker (or subordinate) their work is good when it is not.
• Voicing support for a decision you don’t really believe in because everyone else is in favor of it and there is no more time for discussion.
• Ignoring a subordinate’s chronic tardiness because the employee has a troublesome home life and you figure they’ve got enough to deal with.
(See “Key” below for the conflicting rights in these situations.)
Review the Situation
For the issue they’ve selected, ask each group to discuss and take brief notes on:
• What are the competing “rights” in this scenario?
• What rationalizations might someone make in this situation? (Examples might include, “It’ll just be easier this way”, “It’s not that big a deal.”, “I don’t have time…”
• What outside influences might be in play?
Note: You may want to explain that influences can either be “supporting” (i.e. they help us make ethical choices– such as a manager who consistently demonstrates high integrity) or “distracting” (i.e. they potentially lead us toward unethical behavior—such as an emphasis on meeting a quota at all costs.)
At this stage, do not have the groups come up with a solution or final decision.
Resolve the Dilemma
Explain to participants that—as they have just seen– in the case of conflicting rights, both choices may be ethical to some extent, but one is a better choice than the other. Dilemmas typically have “better” answers, but the decision process can be tough.
Introduce the following three steps to resolving ethical dilemmas:
1) If possible, eliminate the conflict. (Seek permission to grant an exception, make a special case, or otherwise change the conditions.)
2) Decide what’s more right. (Ask which option is most in line with laws or organizational values? Which provides the greatest benefit for the largest number of people? Which sets the best precedent for guiding similar decisions in the future?)
3) Seek Assistance. (Run the situation past your manager, HR or anyone who can listen and provide objective feedback.)
Have each group revisit their dilemma and apply these 3 steps to their decision making process. What would their suggested course of action be?
Ask a representative from each group to describe the course of action they decided on, and the rationale behind it.
Key for Instructors:
For each of the situations your group will work with, here is a little more information on the answers you might look for.
Example 1) It’s right to want to meet deadlines and keep the organization from being short-handed, but it’s also right to stay home when you’re sick so you will get well faster and avoid infecting others.
Example 2) It’s right to protect a co-worker’s feelings (especially when the person is insecure) but it is also right to make sure people know when their work is falling short so they aren’t misled into thinking they’re doing fine.
Example 3) It’s right to be supportive of a team decision, but it’s also right to make sure people know where you truly stand on an issue.
Example 4) It’s right to empathize with people who are having personal troubles, but it’s also right to keep the workplace fair.
Activity based on a section of the Leader’s Guide for the CRM Learning program Ethics 4 Everyone.
Need help in this area? Ethics 4 Everyone is a proven training program for teaching people how to handle a variety of workplace ethics situations including the ones that fall into that tricky “grey area.”