Ethics in Business

by Simon Webley

Handling ethical dilemmas

As with the law, a code cannot address or anticipate all likely ethical dilemmas. Situations will arise that have not been anticipated by the code and where no clear guidance exists about how to behave in the particular circumstances.

Although adherence to the spirit of the code will usually provide a sufficient framework for decisions regarding the right thing to do, an individual employee may sometimes be faced with an unusually difficult moral choice. Cases of this type often involve customer or supplier practices. In these instances, it is always preferable to encourage staff to ‘disclose and discuss’ – for example, to talk to a line manager or colleagues about the issue – before taking action.

  1. After an inconclusive discussion concerning discount arrangements, the customer offers tickets to the purchasing team to attend a major sporting event.
  2. A supplier says that it would be possible for trade customers to obtain building materials for personal use at nominal prices.

In cases involving ethical questions or where certain ethical principles appear to be in contradiction, employees’ feelings can run high and emotion can obscure the facts. This may occur, for example, when managers follow a course of action that is felt by employees to be unjust or even immoral. This type of situation usually involves the treatment of individuals or, sometimes, a wider group.

  1. Resolving a request to arrive an hour late for work on two days a week in order to take a child to school.
  2. Dealing with an accusation of sexual harassment when it involves a ‘he said… she said’ situation with no witnesses.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.


Senior management must accept that controversial ethical issues will arise and they therefore need to plan how to deal with difficult situations. It is important that those responsible for implementing and overseeing the company’s ethical standards make opportunities for debate and feedback about the working of the code. Staff meetings and training sessions are ideal opportunities for discussing a code’s effectiveness. A lack of dialogue with employees is often at the root of internal disagreements over the resolution of ethical dilemmas.