Professional behaviour often differs from our everyday behaviour patterns.

At work, you have to be friendly and polite in situations where you’d be bursting with temper outside of work.

At work, you mostly need to keep emotions (and sometimes opinions) to yourself.

It’s more complicated if you’re a manager. Maintaining a functional work environment is your responsibility, and you have to find constructive ways to address performance issues, work-related problems, and employee behaviour.

Here’s where workplace ethics comes into play. Being different from our everyday life ethics, it can cause dissonance between what you want to do and what you should do. Below, we’ve collected the most common ethical dilemmas that people face at work – and have to solve.

Dilemma: What to mention and what to omit at a job interview?

Ethical dilemmas can appear already at the job interview, especially if you have a not so perfect employment history. Should you mention you were fired from your previous position? How to explain why it happened? Making up a perfect cover story is tempting, but what if the employer finds out the truth?

Even if you don’t have a history of firings and workplace conflicts, there can be doubts about what to say to your potential employer. For example, when asked why you left your previous job, the first sentence that probably comes to your mind is “I escaped a viper nest”. But how can you be honest about the actual reasons for leaving and not come across as unprofessional, rude and overly demanding?

Also Read: Poor business ethics, lack of innovation are key reasons for failure of startups in India: IBM study


Be upfront about important facts about your previous employment. What you liked, what you disliked and why you left. Even if you don’t get a job or get fired, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person who should never work again.

If you committed a mistake, emphasise on the fact that you learned your lesson. That said, resist the urge of involving emotions: be mindful about the words you choose. Just be aware of the good and the bad at your previous workplace.

Dilemma: Running a personal business at the workplace

Having a side hustle is not a crime (at least as long as it doesn’t violate your employment contract). Many have one. Sometimes, it can require your urgent attention while you’re at your day job. You have obligations to both employers, so what to do?

Or, say, a friend just sent you a link to a gorgeous dress from an online shop, and now you’re studying the entire summer collection on their website, while your day is ticking away. You are just disconnecting from the dull routine. Nothing illegal, but somehow doesn’t feel right.


Make sure to separate your side hustle from your primary job. Don’t take on side projects that would require your immediate attention through your regular workday. Keep in mind that it will jeopardise your reputation sooner or later.

As for googling something personal during your work hours, using your work phone for personal calls, or printing out your stuff with a company-owned printer, review what your company’s policies say about using company-owned resources, and strictly follow them.

Dilemma: Should I report the inappropriate behaviour of a colleague?

It’s your coworker you’re friends with, and they are rude to clients. Or using racial slurs, or bragging about how they violated the company’s policies and had zero consequences. Usually, it’s supposed that behaviour like this should be reported, but since it is your friend… you never want to snitch on them.

The dilemma doesn’t necessarily involve friendship though. You might be afraid of the consequences of reporting a manager’s behaviour or trying not to be petty. The frequent choice is not reporting – but is it right?

Also Read: 5 elements of company culture that will keep your business moving


Not reporting inappropriate behaviour is nurturing it. Addressing it timely is the appropriate way to handle it: talking to the offender personally, or initiating a formal procedure with a manager or HR department – reporting rudeness, policy violations, sexual harassment, racism, or other severe issues is essential to keep a work environment functional and inclusive.

Dilemma: How do I address unprofessionalism?

Now it’s your employee, and they burst into tears after hearing that you are not happy with their performance, even asking you not to give them feedback.

Or it’s a summer intern who would always choose the least appropriate topic for a water cooler talk and never notice the sudden awkward silence. Or an employee who never misses a chance to police others for clothes and tattoos. Or, say, an otherwise lovely person who is dropping F-bombs over and over again.

The problem is, you’d be happy to have them stop all of it, but you have no idea how to explain basic things like this. Or you don’t want to be that grumpy person no one wants to communicate to. Or it’s something that seems not so severe and perfectly excusable. How to handle it?


In most cases, people don’t realise they’re doing or saying something wrong until someone addresses it. This is especially true for interns and young employees at their first post-college job, who didn’t have a chance to adopt professional norms.

So you need to get rid of the “if I ignore it, it will go away” mindset and be transparent with your employees and interns about their behaviour.

The key point is being kind and willing to help: frame it as something that will block them from great jobs and networking opportunities in the future – and keep in mind you’re doing them a favour by addressing their lack of professionalism as early as possible.

Dilemma: How do I admit I’ve committed a mistake?

You’re on the IT team, and you’ve granted access to confidential data to someone who’s not supposed to have it. Or you’ve sent your valued customer’s invoice (with a decent discount!) to another customer who’s paying regular price, and now both are not excited, to say the least. Or you’ve messed up the client database, and no one can use it. Plot twist: no one knows it was you.

What to do? Silently wait until it settles up or admitting it was your fault? They say it’s okay, to be honest, but in real life, penalties are highly likely as soon as the culprit is caught. And you don’t want any penalties.


It can sound hard and disappointing, but admitting the mistake is the best way to handle the problem. The sooner the problem is known, the better is the chances to minimise its consequences.

Besides, getting in even more trouble if they find out it was your mistake is not what you’re aiming at. Be honest, and make it clear that you’ve learned an important lesson from your mistake and it’s guaranteed that you’ll never commit it again.

Dilemma: I disagree with management’s decision – what do I do?

Your grand boss appointed a new manager in your department, and you realise they’re the least competent person at their job. Or work you dislike and are bad at has been assigned to you and saying no is not an option.

Or your coworker overshared a bit and you’ve learned they have received a better bonus than you, despite the fact that you’ve been working harder. How to address it?

Also Read: Play nice, be friendly, add value


Actually, there’s no “how-to” for solving this dilemma: each case is individual. The good news is, it’s always a chance to make an important decision and improve the quality of at least your work life.

You can keep the disagreement to yourself and continue enjoying the benefits of your job, or suggest a better solution, or speak up as a group with your coworkers and influence the unpopular decision.

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Image Credit: Samuel Zeller