Employees encounter ethical dilemmas at work all the time. A manager is having an affair. A coworker is spending company time updating her resume and contacting headhunters. A team member is leveraging intel he acquired at a former job, despite having signed a noncompete agreement when he left.
We all have an innate ethics sense–an inner guide that just knows the right thing to do. But do we always follow it? No. For some employees, the ability to act according to their ethics sense is strong and feels very natural. Other employees could use practice sharpening their ethics sense and learning how to better apply it in real-life situations.
Ethical problems in the workplace are common, and we tend to react to them in a specific way, depending on our background, level of training, and personality. I’ve found that there are four ethical types:
The Conformist is an employee who follows rules rather than questions authority figures. He tends to do things “by the book.” One might think this ethical type could be counted on to always do the right thing. However, the Conformist might, by his very nature, look the other way if a higher up were acting unethical. After all, a manager is someone he’s supposed to obey. The Conformist will run into work-related ethical conflicts unless his organization has a set of very rigid rules and well-defined consequences for not following them.
Your ethical type is the Negotiator if you’re someone who tries to make up rules as you go along. When faced with a sketchy situation–say, a coworker is drinking on her lunch hour–the Negotiator might take a wait-and-see attitude to see if her behavior affects his job in any way, to see if the drinking gets any worse, or to see if anyone else notices. The Negotiator will eventually encounter ethics-related trouble if his job requires him to exercise judgment without guidelines. That’s because this ethical type changes the rules according to what seems easiest at the time.
The Navigator is someone who, when confronted with a situation in which people are behaving unethically, is able rely on her innate ethics sense to guide her actions, even if these decisions aren’t easy. This ethical type has a basically sound moral compass, which gives her the flexibility to make choices, even unpopular ones. The Navigator’s ethical sense imbues her with qualities of leadership. Other people respect this type of person and learn to count on her. The Navigator will succeed in most organizations, but will leave a company that is unethical.
This ethical type doesn’t give a lot of thought to what is right, but instead, takes the route that’s most advantageous to him. For example, he may lie to appease a supervisor, but then refuse to lie next time if he senses that others are beginning to suspect the supervisor. The Wiggler is mostly motivated by self-interest–getting on a manager’s good side, getting a better deal for himself, or avoiding conflict, for example. The Wiggle will run into trouble when others sense that he dodges ethical issues to protect his own interests.
The good news is that your ethical type isn’t set in stone. There are tools you can use to develop your ethics sense and become a more ethical employee and problem solver. With practice, you can make ethical decisions more easily, and more quickly see and follow the right path.
Want to learn which ethical type you are? Take a free On-the-Job Ethics Test here.
Mark Pastin is an award-winning ethics thought leader, ethics consultant, and keynote speaker. The CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics in business and government, Pastin is author of Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action (Berrett-Koehler, 2013