An Ethical Dilemma in a Work Setting

Subject: Business Ethics
Pages: 7
Words: 2025
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: PhD


With the development of technology today, the world has become ‘smaller’. The ‘global village’, that is the world today, has surely broadened the scope of cultural diversity in work settings. These diversities are not only based on micro-cultures, such as ethnicities, but also on macro-cultures like nations and continents. “The workforce today consists of people with more diverse culture, religion, nationality, education and socioeconomic status.” (Lankard 1991, p. 56). It is only natural, therefore, that these people bring with them differing goals and values, backgrounds and perceptions of what is, or is not acceptable behavior. There are a number of possible ethical dilemmas that could arise in such a diverse environment. For this paper, I have picked on a scenario where conflict arises between the personal beliefs and values of an individual against the principal interests of the company.

In this scenario, there was an ethical case involving pacemakers in 1975 that remains pertinent today. A pacemaker has a timer, which resets it every time the patient’s heartbeats. Whenever the heart misses a beat for long, say about 1.2 seconds, the pacemaker triggers the heartbeat using a transistor. Without the transistor, it could not work. In 1975, one transistor company that supplied the pacemaker company realized that there were problems with the device. For instance, the pacemaker disabled the patients’ normal heartbeat, so that they depended entirely on it. Thus, if the device failed, the heart would stop and result in death. Considering that it was a new technology, the doctors were not proficient at implanting the device, which could lead to complications. There was a story of a patient dying simply because he/she yawned deeply, and in the process, pulled the device’s wire in his/her chest. For fear of a possible lawsuit, the transistor company (my organization), opted to pull out, only to be informed by the pacemaker company that they could not do so because it was the sole supplier. All other suppliers had pulled out.

The transistor company found itself in an ethical dilemma. Some of the board members argued that the company did not make enough money and so, the deal was not worth the risk of the lawsuit(s). Others felt that they had an obligation to save lives by supplying the transistors, especially now that they were the sole suppliers and yet, others also felt it was their obligation to protect the lives put to risk by the device. In other words, they felt they should pull out.

Companies have the ethical obligation to serve their business interests, which includes protecting the company from danger, such as lawsuits. The transistor company (my organization), was likely to chart the way out but for those who come from a culture that puts more value on life than anything else, this move would be problematic. Depending on how strongly they felt about saving lives, an ethical conflict was likely to arise. For instance, the company would probably question these people’s loyalty to the company and its interests. On the other hand, these people would question why the company does not respect their feelings.

My personal position and rationale

My stand is that it would be wrong for other board members to question one’s loyalty where beliefs and values are concerned. On the other hand, those who feel strongly about saving lives, must not have their way for them to feel that the company respects their stand. I think that it is both legally and ethically necessary for all the concerned people to be involved but first of all, all the said stakeholders must understand what such issues are. As stated already, different behaviors and values or beliefs mean different things in different cultures. It is, therefore, unfair for one to be accused of unethical behavior towards another over what he/she does not know as much as it is not to offer him/her a chance for protection against offensive behavior.

Lankard (1991) forwards certain general solutions in case of an ethical dilemma scenario. Generally, he argues that it is important to analyze and discuss the situation before a decision can be made. For all this to take place, all the stakeholders involved in the situation must be present so that their sides of the story can also be taken into consideration but, to what good can these do if there is no tolerance between the people involved in the first place? Worse still, who should be the judge if the leaders, those upon whom the decision-making rests do not understand their diverse viewpoints, or are not tolerant themselves? The truth is that the whole discussion and analysis will be a charade headed nowhere. The first step is to understand what diversity means and how it should be made to work.

Cox (1993) strongly advocates for the management of diversity. He argues that in order to make the most of the opportunities presented through multiculturalism, organizations have to move away from monolithic or plural stances to the multicultural. This is a step towards cultural competence. There are a number of definitions of the concept of cultural competence. Generally, cultural competence aims at fostering constructive interactions between people from different cultures. In this case, these would include the staff members.

Diller (2004) asserts the need to view cultural competence as a continuing process. All organizations, he argues, must always strive towards it. It must be noted that cultural competence does not only have to do with the set legislation but also minimum practice standards. These factors cannot catch up with the speedy evolution in workplaces. As such, cultural competence, unlike these factors, must evolve alongside such speedy changes at workplaces.

These should aim at giving value to the prevailing cultural diversities. This can be done by recognizing the importance of individual cultural uniqueness, developing awareness of the cultures of the communities in which they are found and pointing out possible assumptions and biases. This would help set guidelines for taking care of them; proactive management of the cultural differences in order to improve interaction, integrating an awareness of the diverse cultures into the delivery of services and practices; and adapting, by embedding, cultural knowledge throughout the organization’s hierarchy, policy, service delivery, practices and behaviors (NCCC 2006).

Cultural competence should not just be an organizational effort. There is a need for the individual members of an organization to take steps towards cultural competence as well. This involves personal efforts to gain cultural awareness, knowledge and skills. This goes beyond the mere practice of tolerance. Basically, it revolves around putting oneself in another person’s shoes: viewing the world from another’s perspective (Diller 2004). For this to happen, one must move away from being ethnocentric and judgmental, towards more open, flexible and tolerant behavior (Diller 2004).

Strategies I Could Employ to Address the Situation

It is obvious, in this case, that no resolution can be reached if all the board members fail to acknowledge the role of their cultures in their decisions. Once that is done, then they can start to understand each other’s perceptions. Thus, instead of conflict, there can be a mutual understanding amongst all stakeholders. Here, I would employ two sets of solutions. The first one would be immediate. That is, define and understand the situation in its immediate context. The second solution would have to do with averting a recurrence of such culturally-based ethical issues and this would involve undertaking cultural competence in the organization. The particulars of these solutions are provided in the next sub-section.

Actions and implementable strategies to achieve my personal position

It seems to me that the problem here has to do with the possible lawsuits against the transistor company. As it were, the company makes money in the transaction. The first step I would take is to understand clearly the legal implications of the company’s position, vis-à-vis that of the pacemaker company. It is likely that the legal problems spoken of are a result of the ethical novelty of the situation. Otherwise, now that the situation is here, it may be possible to find some legal solution out of it. For instance, having brought the matter to the attention of policy-makers, legislation could be provided to protect the transistor company considering the importance of the deal continues. Finding a solution to this legal situation will obviously help to ease the situations of the board members (Mays, Siantz & Viehweg 2002).

For the second solution, I would pick specific components of cultural competence that I can use to solve this dilemma. A number of authors have carried out research on organizations that have been successful in managing their own cultural diversities. Generally, their findings reveal certain similarities in practice in these organizations. The proposals here are based on some of these similarities in findings.

An organization must include diversity in its strategic objectives. There is the danger of adapting these plans as a part of the affirmative action plan. In this case, an organization may only do it as a part of meeting certain legally-dictated policies rather than a genuine commitment to diversity. Adopting diversity as a business objective encourages crucial commitment to it. As such, the third way to cope with diversity is to carry out aggressive recruitment of culturally diverse workers. This, for instance, should involve increasing the number of ethnic minorities and women in higher salary levels.

There must be a comprehensive ethical code that addresses issues related to culture. This code must carry within it a mission statement that expresses the company’s commitment to its staff and their well-being, which includes protecting them, especially the minority, in relation to ethnic and cultural diversity. Just as it is in working conditions, a person’s ethnic and cultural background may shape how he/she deals with the problems and interact with the rest of the staff. What is normal in one culture may be behaviorally inappropriate in another and what is acceptable in one culture may be unacceptable in another. For an organization to understand the implications of these differences, an organization must be conversant with the varying cultural norms and traditions within its ranks (Department of Human Services (DHS) 2006).

Cultural competence thrives on an organization’s valued stand on individual worth, integrity and self-determination. Recognizing these cases is the first important step towards helping an organization cope with the various cultural-based ethical dilemmas that may arise. Having a comprehensive plan depends on the commitment of the top management. For example, the Chief Executive Officer must show a strong commitment to diversity. In order to help the leaders in this effort, it is important to offer diversity-related training to the leaders (Bob 1992).

Today, training should be part of school curriculums as most organizations today are culturally diverse in their workforce. On that note, Lankard (1991, p. 12) argues that training helps “all workers at all levels of management to recognize the ideals that guide ethically acceptable behavior and helps them develop ways through which to assess both their organizational and personal ethics”. Attached to this is the need “to hold managers accountable for achieving diversity goals” (White 2006, p. 56). Performance evaluations should be carried out on managers. Those who succeed in developing and managing such diversities should be rewarded (White 2006, p. 52). Finally, there should be an efficient channel of communication through which employees can express their grievances, ideas and feedback.


This paper has pointed out ways to avoid a situation where there may be ethical issues related to cultural diversity in an organization. For such ethical complaints to be deemed credible, the cultural basis must first be acknowledged and in order to do that, there has to be cultural competence, which can only be achieved through good management of diversity. The scope of diversity management is broad and complex. One step towards success is to shift focus from the efficiency-oriented mindset to more emphasis on goals for human relations (Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria Inc 2006). In the end, decisions on ethical dilemmas can be guided by three main ‘ethic checks’: legality, balance (based on the facts available), and personal pride. It is the ability of that judgment to stand scrutiny by others (Lankard 1991).


Bob, S 1992, Diversity in the workplace, Guilford Press, New York.

Cox, T 1993, Cultural diversity in organizations: Theory, research & practice, Berrett- Koehler, San Francisco.

Department of Human Services (DHS) 2006, Cultural diversity guide, State of Victoria DHS, Brunswick.

Diller, J 2004, Cultural diversity: A primer for human services, 2nd Edition, Brooks/Cole, New York.

Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria Inc. 2006, Cultural competence guidelines and protocols, Statewide Resources Centre, Carlton.

Lankard, B 1991, “Resolving ethical dilemmas in the workplace: A new focuses for career development,” Eric Digest, 112.

Mays, R, Siantz, M & Viehweg, S 2002, “Assessing cultural competence of policy organizations,” Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 13 (2), pp. 139-144.

National Centre for Cultural Competence (NCCC) 2006, Conceptual frameworks/models, guiding values and principles, Georgetown University Child Development Centre, Washington DC.

White, R 2006, Managing the diverse organization: The imperative for a New Multicultural Paradigm Public Administration Institute Louisiana State University, Louisiana State University, Baton.