When workplace and personal values clash...

How best should an employer ask employees to apply workplace ethical values when the employee’s personal ethical values clash?

For example there may be a workplace ethical standard that says we don’t discriminate on the basis of various demographic characteristics like gender, ethnicity, orientation, et cetera. We want to tell employees they aren’t allowed to discriminate even if they have, say, a religion telling them to.

But for another example an employer might be breaking the law or defrauding its customers, and might expect employees to collude in this. I wouldn’t want to promote that.

The trouble is, I’m only seeing what I want to do as contradictory. I’m kind of saying employees should obey the right rules and not necessarily all the rules or all the marching orders, and they’re supposed to sort the two out correctly, meaning the same way I would sort them out.

What are some ways employers and organizations deal with this more neatly?

One obvious way that works sometimes (but not all the time) is to transfer the employee to a position that does not require the employee to violate their personal values. This sort of thing happens all the time with Quakers, many of whom are willing to work for the government or even the military itself as long as they are not in a role in which they would need to use a weapon.

They might be doing those things, but that doesn’t make it an “ethical value” of the company. I bet if you look up the part of the company website where it lists their mission statement and core values, it doesn’t say “we believe in stealing from our customers whenever we think we can get away with it.”

So that allows you to distinguish between the two kinds of situations: if the company, proudly and openly, adheres to a set of ethical standards which doesn’t match yours, then you’ll either need to suppress your own values or find another employer. If the company is doing something which they wouldn’t want the outside world to know about, then it may be necessary to become a whistleblower.

I’m okay with a sort of muddled response to it that leaves it up to the employer and employee. If you’re asked to serve meat, but that violates your personal ethics, do what you gotta do. Switch tables with someone else. Emphasize vegetarian specials. Hell, “forget” to place the orders for all I care: sure, that’d violate some serious honesty issues, but if you’re weighing the violation of calls to be honest against other ethical concerns, weigh away, dude. If it’s too much for your employer to take, they can fire you. It’s all good.

From the employer perspective my inclination is always to try and make reasonable accommodations where possible (when we’re talking about religious beliefs, and not just personal ethics, it’s actually the law.) This isn’t always possible, for example if there’s a Muslim who is strictly observant and only eats or touches halal food, and you own a pork processing plant, it will be extremely difficult to find a reasonable accommodation for him if he’s only qualified to do the blue collar jobs in the plant and not one of the back office jobs.

[QUOTE I’m kind of saying employees should obey the right rules and not necessarily all the rules or all the marching orders, and they’re supposed to sort the two out correctly, meaning the same way I would sort them out.

What are some ways employers and organizations deal with this more neatly?[/QUOTE]

So I don’t understand, are you a middle manager and you want to teach the people under you how to diplomatically skirt the rules? (It would help if you gave an example.) I think in situations like that most managers just ignore that issue entirely, because if you were to instruct others to skirt the rules, even to help them, your good deed could come around and bite you on the ass.

I was a teacher and upper management always wanted us to lie to students. For instance, we were moving classes into a new building, when students asked “why are we moving into that horrible building?”, we were of course instructed to say cheerfully “because its nicer and has a better air conditioning system” we were not supposed to tell students the the truth which was “because the school is in financial trouble, due to mismanagement, and the new building is cheaper to rent, and by the way— they spent all the tuition you paid on junkets for upper management to the Bahamas.” So, I chose not to say either one of those things and skirt the question and say “I don’t know”. Which is still lying but less blatant, and won’t get me in trouble.

I believe that your ethical values are your own, and your employer has no business in interfering with them. They do not even have the right to know them, if you do not want them to. However, since your employer is paying you, there are a number of things that they can expect from you - even if those things clash with your personal values:
[li]You must do the job you have been hired to do. If you do not want to serve meat, better not take that job in the steakhouse.[/li][li]You cannot break the law. Your employer cannot ask you to break (or bend) the law and you cannot expect them to tolerate it, if you do.[/li][li]You can be expected to refrain from actively disturbing the peace within the company. If you keep mobbing the gay coworker, your boss has every right to intervene.[/li][li]Whenever you are publicly representing the company, you are not allowed to sell your personal values as the company’s.[/li][/ul]
Every company has a hierarchy, and business decisions are usually made at the top of that hierarchy. As long as such decisions are not in violation of applicable law, you as an employee can usually be expected to follow along. If you work in a company where that brings you into severe conflict with your ethical values, it might be best to quit.

In both the examples in the OP the employee following the law works for me. In the first case his personal morality would require him to both break the law and go against the company, so he should quit. In the second he would be upholding the law and disobeying orders to break the law, so he should either quit or be a whistle blower.
More interesting is when ones orders are legal but unethical. Exxon saying there is no climate change is one case. I have a friend who works for a chemical company and goes around saying that a particular chemical is safe and efficient. As far as I can tell he believes this, but he would have a dilemma if he stopped believing it. What to do then? Quit or work from inside?

I would pretty much agree with this. As much of my career has involved working with companies on legal, regulatory and risk management related matters, I have a particular opinion and perspective on the subject.

When you work at a company, there are several factors that come into play when reconciling the company and your morality:
-Legal - What does the law expect you and your company to do (or not do)? Regardless of what the company culture is like, you very much can and will run afoul of the authorities if you break the law in the course of completing your job.

-Policy - What are the company’s rules? This is the formal declaration of what behaviors the company expects. Their actual monitoring and enforcement of these rules may be another matter.

-Ethical - What is the ‘right’ thing to do? It may not be written in the law or the rules, but these are the values of the company. Do you feel good about the actions the company expects you to take (or not take)?

-Culture - What behaviors are expected? This is how people actually behave at your company and how they expect you to behave. The law may say “don’t defraud customers”, it may be written in the policy and it’s certainly the right thing to do. But if the culture of the company is one where anything goes to close the deal, you may want to decide if that is for you. Also keeping in mind that even if the company tolerates it, the law will not.
Ultimately you need to decide if a company shares your values. And if they do not, you have a couple choices - find a new job or tell your manager that you don’t feel comfortable doing a particular activity and face the consequences (which include possibly looking for another job).

The company tells employees and prospective employees what the job requires. The employees compare those requirements to their own ethics. If there’s a conflict, don’t take the job. If the conflict is great enough, call the police, or organize a boycott, or whatever other actions seem appropriate.