Dilemmas and Supervisors

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Dilemmas and Supervisors
Have you ever had pressure from a supervisor or manager to so something that pushed the ethical envelope? Were you able to manage it, or would you have liked a different result?
In this session, you’ll learn about working through dilemmas that start with your supervisor, as well as dilemmas that can fall upon a supervisor.
Dilemmas with Your Supervisor
In the scenarios we’ve discussed so far, we’ve suggested that you work with your supervisor to solve ethical dilemmas. But what if your supervisor is the problem?
Your supervisor can cause or contribute to ethical dilemmas in the same ways that your co-workers can.

  • Your manager asks you to do something unethical.
  • You see your manager doing something unethical (so s/he is not only breaking the rules, but s/he is setting a bad example).
  • Your manager ignores or tolerates unethical behavior (also setting a bad example).

Let’s look at some ways that you can address ethical dilemmas caused by your supervisor.
Plan A
Let’s say that your supervisor casually asks you to sign some documents for him. You feel that this is unethical, so you simply say, “I’m not really comfortable doing that.” Your supervisor may not have been aware that his/her request was unethical, and they may retract the request. This simple process works in many cases.
Plan B
If Plan A didn’t work, or you said yes and then changed your mind, or if you asked for some more time to think about the request, then it’s time to proceed to Plan B: a sit-down meeting.
First, make sure that the discussion takes time at the appropriate time and place. If there’s a pressing decision that needs to be made that may become an ethical dilemma, take five minutes, and at least make your supervisor aware of it. Otherwise, try to have a sit-down meeting in a private area so that you have time to fully air your issues without interruption.
Then, paraphrase your supervisor’s request. Say something like, “I understand that you wanted me to supply figures for that report due this afternoon.” When your boss hears another way of phrasing it, s/he may immediately retract their request.
If the supervisor doesn’t retract his/her request, say no again. This time, you need a more complete statement with these parts:

  • “I really don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
  • Explain your understanding of the situation and the aspects of the dilemma. Take the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Explain why you don’t feel comfortable with the situation.
  • Explain that you are trying to protect the reputation of everyone involved (yourself, your boss, and the company.)
  • Define what you expect ethically.
  • Provide some solutions that would meet your ethical principles and that would be agreeable to the supervisor and the company.
  • Ensure you and your supervisor commit to a plan of action.
  • Thank your supervisor for listening to you and giving you the opportunity to air your thoughts.

During the discussion, make sure you:

  • Don’t become defensive or emotional.
  • Stay on track.
  • Don’t put your boss or the company down.
  • Try not to judge, accuse, or criticize.
  • Don’t compromise your ethical principles; do compromise on solutions (as long as they are ethically acceptable).
  • Stop talking when you’ve made your points.

Plan C
If you’ve had a sit-down with the boss and s/he still wants you to behave unethically, it’s time for Plan C.
First, reconsider the situation. Make sure you are committed to seeing this thing through, even if it comes down to losing your job. Can you live with the situation as it is or is it worth the fight?
Once you have established your commitment to this moral dilemma, it’s time to swing into action. First, talk to another supervisor (at the same level or higher) or to your Human Resources department to get their perspective on the situation. Make sure you document the who, what, where, when, and why of each person you talk to about the situation. Above all, stick to the facts. Focus on the dilemma, its potential consequences, and your ethical concerns.
If the dilemma still is not resolved within your ethical boundaries, it’s time to get a lawyer. Your next avenues of disagreement are drastic: sue the employer, go to the media or other government agencies, or quit.
Dilemmas as a Supervisor
Unfortunately, the burden of ethics often falls most heavily on those in power. Supervisors are often placed in ethical dilemmas, caught between their supervisors and their staff, or between the needs of the client and their staff. Supervisors also have the responsibility of setting a good ethical example for their employees. And, supervisors are often less closely policed than lower-level staff. Many supervisors see their elevated position as a reason to bend the rules to their advantage.