What Are the Most Common Types of Ethical Dilemma?

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In a professional setting, ethical dilemmas will come up. Individuals, teams and companies can take steps to prevent them and in many cases, these steps are effective. But even when care is taken to keep ethical dilemmas from arising, they can and do crop up, and when they do, they tend to create a significant amount of stress for those involved.

Ethics and Ethical Challenges Across Industries

Ethics vary from industry to industry. Although there are some universal ethics that individuals and companies across industries follow, many other ethical positions are only applicable in specific fields. A few examples of field-specific ethical positions include:

  • For a restaurant, sourcing food only from farms and suppliers that humanely raise animals.
  • For a financial advisor, discussing in-depth with clients the companies represented in funds so they can choose funds with industries and companies they want to own.
  • For a jewelry maker, choosing to use only lab-grown diamonds in designs. 
  • For a pest control company, using only organic compounds for pest control.
  • For a small construction company, always complying with OSHA guidelines.

Ethical Dilemma Examples in Nursing

In healthcare, ethical dilemmas are particularly daunting because they often involve sensitive aspects of patient care, such as end-of-life decisions and the administration of potentially addictive pain medications. Nurses, like doctors and others in the healthcare field, wrestle with a variety of ethical challenges that can have permanent repercussions for them and their patients.

Ethical dilemma examples in nursing include:

  • Not being sure if the patient has truly given informed consent to a procedure.
  • Whether to disclose all details of a patient’s condition or prognosis.
  • Keeping patients’ details private from his or her loved ones, particularly when the patient cannot effectively advocate for himself.
  • Following a patient’s advance medical directive versus administering the treatment family members want.
  • Complying with a patient’s personal requests when doing so can potentially take time and resources from other patients.
  • Facing the prospect of administering addictive pain medications to patients. 

    Read More: Ethical Dilemmas in Law Firms

Ethical Dilemma Examples in Business

Many of the ethical dilemmas that workers face in business are considerably different from those experienced by healthcare workers and individuals who are employed in public sector jobs like law enforcement, government and public education. There are ethical dilemma examples in business that also appear in nonprofit and government workplaces, as well.

Common ethical dilemma examples in business include:

  • Deciding how to handle a romantic attraction to a colleague in a workplace that forbids such  relationships.
  • Feeling pressured to work with vendors who are personal friends of the boss, rather than those who offer the best value for a job.
  • Having to decide whether to keep a contract with a supplier whose own ethical misconduct has been exposed.
  • Having the opportunity to increase profits by working with suppliers that do not pay workers a living wage.
  • Being pressured to hire an applicant because he is related to a colleague, rather than because he is the best fit for the position.
  • Scaling back safety precautions to finish a job faster or cheaper.
  • Adjusting figures in a company’s financial statements to make the company look more – or less – profitable than it really is.
  • Sharing collected customer data with other companies.
  • Violating the terms of a noncompete, nonsolicitation or nondisclosure agreement for personal gain when there is little chance one’s employer will find out.

Ethical Dilemma Examples in Social Work

Common ethical dilemma examples in social work are similar to the ethical dilemma examples in nursing. In both fields, highly trained professionals work directly with vulnerable populations. In many cases, the nurse or social worker is in a position to advocate for her patient or client because that person cannot speak for himself. However, there are many differences in the ethical protocol nurses and social workers are required to follow.

Social workers help their clients through the challenges they face through advocacy and the administration of psychotherapy. Social workers perform their duties in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, schools, private practice and through government agencies like child and adult protective services. Ethical dilemma examples in social work include:

  • Determining whether a client’s statements are a valid reason to break confidentiality and file a report to law enforcement or social services.
  • Deciding whether to accept gifts from a client.
  • Determining how to respond to a client’s social media friend request.
  • Determining how to handle information a client gives about his past criminal actions.
  • Providing guidance and support without interfering with the client’s right to self-determination.
  • Determining the line between supporting the client's wishes and pushing the client to follow the social worker’s preferred course of action.

Universal Ethical Dilemmas

While some ethical dilemmas are specific to their industries, others occur in many, or all, professional fields. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Determining whether to potentially hurt one’s career by reporting a colleague’s unethical behavior.
  • Facing the opportunity to use company funds for personal purchases.
  • Deciding how much truth to tell clients about products and services offered or about competitors’ products or services.
  • Being offered bribes to award contracts or take specific actions in the form of donations, gifts or other "incentives.”
  • Facing conflicts of interest, such as a lawyer representing a friend in criminal court. 
  • Violating laws or industry standards to increase profit or privately resolve a company issue.
  • Deciding whether to tell a colleague she is going to be fired, laid off or otherwise face challenges at work that she is unaware of.

Resolving Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace

Many companies’ strategy for resolving ethical dilemmas is to prevent them. Companies can make an effort to prevent ethical dilemmas from arising by adopting ethical codes, broad statements that define the company’s positions on specific issues. Often, ethical codes are used to develop codes of conduct, guidelines for employees to follow at work when facing ethical dilemmas. A code of ethics cannot always keep ethical dilemmas from arising, but when it can't, it can typically minimize them, making the problems easier to resolve.

Creating a code of ethics is one effective strategy for mitigating and managing ethical dilemmas, but it is not the only one. Another way many employers deal with potential ethical dilemmas is by requiring their employees to complete ongoing professional development focused on handling ethical challenges at work. Often, this training is coupled with a workplace code of ethics, so employees develop the critical thinking skills necessary to determine when and how to apply their employers’ ethics and ways to interpret these ethical codes in specific workplace scenarios.

Employers can help their employees work through ethical challenges by connecting them with counselors and ethics experts. In some workplaces, having an on-site counselor is feasible, and sometimes a built-in part of the organizational plan, such as in a hospital setting. In others, a more realistic way to give employees access to ethical guidance is to create a hotline or email address that connects them with an ethics expert who confidentially discusses their dilemmas and guides them to effective, ethical solutions.