Ethical Responsibilities of Management

Ethical Conflicts

An ethical dilemma is a conflict between two moral imperatives.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the innate contradictions that often arise in an ethical dilemma, where two or more different moral imperatives conflict

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An ethical dilemma is the mental conflict between moral imperatives.
  • Conflict arises when the need to follow one moral imperative will result in disobedience to another.
  • Three principles by which to resolve ethical dilemmas are utilitarianism, justice, and the common good.

Key Terms

  • ethical dilemma: A complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which obeying one means transgressing another.

A person who must choose between competing moral imperatives faces an ethical dilemma. In such a situation, following the actions required by one obligation would mean violating a different obligation. For instance, a manager might have a duty to keep an upcoming layoff secret until plans for severance pay and outplacement for those affected can be outlined. Yet at the same time, that manager might feel an obligation to let staff members know they will soon be out of a job, so they can get a head start finding another one.

Making a choice in the face of two compelling alternatives requires a principle by which to distinguish between them. Several ideas from political philosophy can guide managers in resolving an ethical dilemma:

  • Utilitarianism: A utilitarian approach seeks to provide the most good or do the least harm. In the example above, a manager might ask if the employees will be better off receiving advance word about the layoffs while facing uncertainty about what benefits they may receive. In other words, the manager would gauge how much harm will waiting to inform the staff cause compared to the benefit of minimizing anxiety among employees.
  • Justice: Another way to consider an ethical dilemma is by considering the principle that all people should be treated equally. If the manager informs his staff, is that fair to the other employees whose managers did not reveal the information early? Does that manager also have an obligation to those other employees?
  • Common good: Finally, resolving an ethical dilemma might mean considering whether one choice is more in keeping with the long-term welfare of all affected parties. In this example, assume the manager, some of his employees, and their peers will not be part of the layoff. Will the manager's ability to be effective in the future be made better or worse by taking one action rather than the other? It it better for those who will remain to withhold the information or to disclose it? Moreover, is one option less consistent with the organization 's values ? If that option were chosen, would it undermine employees' belief in the company or the company's credibility as it related to its espoused ethics?

By adopting a principle-based method of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of both alternatives in an ethical dilemma, managers can face two competing values and reach a decision.