Spokane Journal of Business

Addressing ethical conflicts directly in the workplace

Frameworks are available for handling such issues

  • Print Article

Walk the hallways of any organization, and you will hear stories about inner struggles employees face when trying to determine how to react to inappropriate behavior in the workplace. With everything from small slights to major ethical missteps, it can be difficult to determine how best to respond. 

For instance, at a major electronics company, everything was on track for a successful new product launch. Shortly before a product launch date, a team member discovered an error in the software that could cause the product to malfunction fatally. 

When brought to the supervisor’s attention, the response was to get the product launched and fix it later. The supervisor emphasized that team bonuses were dependent on making the promised launch date, and this product was forecasted to give the company a needed bottom line boost. What options did the team member have to find the best approach to communicate these concerns?   

When values or ethics are challenged in the workplace, it is important to know how to respond. Most of the time, it’s complicated, with potential social implications, power imbalances, and tension related to confrontation. Ask your colleagues, and you’ll find most have encountered situations where they have been stymied about how to act in the face of inappropriate behavior from colleagues.

Unfortunate but not unusual occurrences in today’s workplace, employees might feel disrespected by colleagues due to noise, shortcuts in processes that open the organization to risk, employee theft, lack of boundaries and common courtesies. 

These types of workplace challenges create stress for employees, impact the culture, and can drive the best employees to seek other opportunities. Offering employees a framework for addressing small and large workplace conflicts can demonstrate commitment to a healthy work environment and help retain the best employees. This framework is called Giving Voice to Values. It is used by major corporations worldwide, including Lockheed Martin, Unilever, Mayo Clinic, and Kaiser Permanente. 

GVV is a framework that provides people with the tools they need to address workplace challenges using their own style and strengths. While truly giving values a voice within an organization takes a concentrated effort, companies can start by bringing the following tips into the office.

•Understand yourself. In regard to value-based decision making, understanding yourself is multifaceted. First, you must define your purpose, values, and ethical boundaries, then evaluate how you will respond based on your own values and style. You can identify your style by looking at how you have addressed ethical challenges successfully in the past. 

•Understand others. Take time to consider others’ points of view. Rarely are people purely evil or unethical, and their behavior might be unintentional or logical from their own rationale. In addition, there might be information unavailable to you that changes the lens on the issue. Taking the time to think about their perspective helps to address the challenge from a starting point of mutual respect.

•Accept conflict. Recognizing that conflict is normal is a crucial aspect of successfully addressing an ethical challenge. If you can think of it as a normal event in the workplace, it can be addressed with less stress.

•Prepare talking points and expect responses. Prepare your talking points ahead of time. Find a trusted person to review your script or action steps. You also need to be prepared for responses from the other party. Rarely does someone say, “Oh, my bad.” Typically, there is either some effort at explaining a rationale or providing an excuse that justifies their actions.

•Practice before conflict occurs. Most new skills require practice to develop a level of proficiency. Responding to a breach of ethics is no different, and workshops are critical to developing the skills to respond appropriately to workplace values and ethical challenges. 

*Develop strategies. Pick a communication mode. Where are you most comfortable and effective? Some prefer email; others prefer to meet on neutral ground, say over coffee. At times, a meeting is effective, whereas in other circumstances, a meeting elevates the severity of the issue. In those cases, a drop-in, phone call, or email are better choices. One warning about email: In sensitive situations, it is often difficult to communicate tone, and the context of direct conversation is lost. Your communication style and the issue at hand should be considered when determining how to respond in an email.

Before you meet with the employee, do a little research so that you clearly understand the situation and potential reasons for the actions you observed. You may talk with a trusted colleague or mentor to assess whether your views are shared by others and to gain insight into the strategy you are considering to address the situation.  

In workshops that we conduct throughout the Northwest, we find employees develop skills they can use immediately in the workplace. We also find there are added benefits that a workshop brings. Workshops open the door for employees to have conversations with colleagues and supervisors. Just hosting the workshop signals to employees that an employer is dedicated to a healthy workplace where the inevitable conflicts and ethical missteps will be addressed early on.

We’re available to provide tailored workshops to help you deal with workplace issues. If you are interested in learning more about GVV, visit www.GivingVoiceToValuesTheBook.com, a website produced by Mary Gentile, creator of the GVV framework.


Jane Cote is the academic director leading the Carson College of Business at the Washington State University–Vancouver. Contact her at janecote@wsu.edu. Claire Kamm Latham is an associate professor in the Department of Accounting at the Carson College and conducts accounting-related ethics research.

  • Writer Guest

  • Follow RSS feed for  Writer Guest

Read More

Sign up for our E-mail updates

including the
Morning Edition

Join our list