Career Advice

You’ve Got an Ethical Issue at Work. Now What?

Stress in the Workplace

Ethical questions within workplaces are arising more frequently in the public dialogue — from Facebook engineers requesting transfers following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Google employees quitting over a controversial project and even Silicon Valley being equated to the banking industry during the mortgage meltdown.

Meanwhile, hashtags like #TechWontBuildIt are trending on Twitter as employees protest what they view as unethical behavior.

But ethical issues certainly aren’t exclusive to tech. They happen across every industry and field, from banking to nonprofit to healthcare. Most of these don’t make headlines, but can affect our day-to-day experience at work — and our careers. We can’t just switch off our personal values when we step into the office. As Yale professor Daylian Cain explains, “work is often the place where we have the most societal impact; if you can’t bring your ethical values to work, where can you bring them?”

Within companies there are often conflicting incentives and pressures from various stakeholders: managers, leadership, board members, employees — and everyone in between. In rapidly-changing workplaces, this can give rise to a range of ethical questions, prompting employees to wonder whether their company’s values are truly aligned with their own.

Every company has its own organizational culture — and a set of shared assumptions, values and beliefs that shape everything from office norms to dress code. What is considered right or wrong in an office is expressed through this culture.

There are factors that can encourage or discourage employees from speaking up when they see ethically-questionable behavior. First and foremost is the organization’s culture and attitude. How is this behavior reprimanded? Do employees know how to report questionable behavior, and is it encouraged?

Other important factors include leadership, employee perception of support and risk of retaliation. The culture and climate of the workplace plays an important role in how employees address their concerns.

What should you do if you think your company’s values are not aligned with your own? Or if you’re concerned with an ethical issue at work?

  • Listen to yourself. If something seems off, or too close to an ethical line, it’s important to explore. What’s the primary issue? Who does it impact?

  • Find support. In some cases, colleagues, managers and HR may be strong internal allies. And in other cases may be complicit in the unethical behavior. Based on what you know of the situation, do you need an internal or external resource?

  • Explore your options. Once you’ve found your support, explore some important questions such as: How does this align or conflict with my values? What are my options for moving forward? What do I want to see change? How could this impact my well-being or career?

In a fast-moving, digitally interconnected world, ethical issues are becoming even more complex with far-reaching implications.

If you’re experiencing an ethical question at work, you’re not alone. Text 510-674-1414 to get in touch with a trained peer counselor immediately and anonymously. Talk through the situation and explore ways forward. Support is just a text away.

This article originally appeared on Empower Work’s blog. It is reprinted with permission.

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