Suppose you are a legal assistant, preparing a tax return for
You know the client has given you incomplete information and
you report this to your supervisor. He tells you to prepare the
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
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
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. …