Several Factors Influence Workers' Ethical Decisions

Article excerpt

Suppose you are a legal assistant, preparing a tax return for a client.

You know the client has given you incomplete information and you report this to your supervisor. He tells you to prepare the return anyway.

Do you?

That was the decision confronting Jennifer Parker of Leawood when she worked for a law firm in another state. It's typical of the ethical conflicts that many employees and managers face regularly.

Parker prepared the return but told her boss that she could not, in good conscience, sign it as a preparer. So he did.

It's difficult to obtain solid research data on how employees handle ethical conflicts on the job. Most studies relate to corporate rather than individual behavior. Obviously not every employee takes the high road.

Moral behavior in the workplace is based on several factors, said Edward Walter, a professor of philosophy who teaches ethics and business ethics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"Often individuals think about their own self-interest," he said. "Often they may justify the means to an end that is considered desirable. But any means to an end that is desirable is not a good means. For instance, lying and distorting data is not justifiable."

Richard T. DeGeorge, co-director of the International Center for Ethics in Business at the University of Kansas, said he once asked an executive the easiest way to get employees to act unethically. The reply: "Tell them to do something that is almost impossible to do and to get it done and you don't care how it is done or you'll get someone else to do it."

One of the biggest complaints from employees is being asked to do something they think is unethical, said DeGeorge, who is the university distinguished professor of philosophy. That's why some companies have set up "ethical hotlines" to advise employees in those situations, he said.

Vernita Allen of Kansas City, who retired after 33 years of working for various federal agencies, was faced with a situation similar to Parker's. At one job, she reviewed claims from banks for defaulted student loans.

"There were lenders who were not doing right, and I believe that you have to deny these claims and tell them to stick with the law," she said. "But I was told to pay them. I told my boss that I would not pay them if I didn't think they should be paid. So we worked out an agreement that he would sign those claims. …