Ethics in the workplace is a unique topic. Ethical matters normally don’t deal with issues that can be assigned a number, a value, or a quantity. In other words it doesn’t exactly fit in the cell of a spreadsheet.

“Ethics” is about behavior and conduct. Dealing with ethical matters usually conjures up feelings like pride, shame, anger, or guilt. In short, to talk about ethics is to talk about right versus wrong.

These are huge concepts, the sort of feelings that can turn your stomach and keep you up at night—especially when you’re the one being asked to make an ethical compromise. Although you can’t possibly prepare for every single ethical conundrum that might cross your path, you can keep a few things in mind to help you wade through the morass when the moral muck presents itself.

You know a moral dilemma when it happens: you’re asked to do something, and a little voice pops up in the back of your head, or your stomach grumbles in response (hey, there’s a reason it’s called a “gut reaction”). Suddenly, you’re aware of what’s happening and you’re not precisely in the best place to make a decision. So what’s the best thing to do?

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Easy: You buy some thinking time.

But life isn’t a DVR, so it’s not like you can just hit “pause” and come back to the action when you’re ready, right?

Sure you can.

So when Jan asks you to go along with her fudging numbers on her travel expense report, you can give yourself the space to react with a few responses like these:

  • “I need to think on that. Give me an hour.”
  • “Can I get back to you on that? I need some time to consider it.”
  • “I’d really like to think it over first. Let me get back to you on that.”

This technique of “freezing time” or “hitting the pause button” can often be effective in and of itself: not only are you pausing the situation, you’re literally giving the asker a chance to take pause, too. It gives them a moment to hear what they’re actually asking (and sometimes, they may simply not be aware of the fact that what they’re asking you to do could make you feel uncomfortable). And sometimes, that pause is just enough to get them to rethink (and think better of) their request.

So what if the person asking you to make the moral compromise doesn’t change his or her insistence? Before relenting or making a choice you’ll regret, think about these three questions:

  • If a jury saw me agree to this on videotaped evidence, would they think it was okay?
  • If some person I respect saw me do this, would he/she think it was okay?
  • If I saw someone else doing this, would I think it was okay?

If your answer is “no” to any of these three questions, you have your answer. And if the person asking you this question becomes frustrated with you or continues to be insistent, then be authentic and open with them. Gently inform them that it makes you uncomfortable, that if you saw someone you respected “fudging numbers” on an expense report, it wouldn’t feel okay either.

While a number of books have been written about the concepts of business ethics, are there truly two sets of ethics for you to maintain? One to live by when you’re at work and the other when you’re at home? Creating such a split can often make actions and reactions that are at odds with each other. And when actions become environment-justified, they can often create a rift: one set of right and another for wrong. That may very well be the most ethically questionable path of all.

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
– Mark Twain

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