Ethical Conflicts Increase Work Stress and Burnout

Ethical Conflicts Increase Work Stress and Burnout

Dr. Morley D. Glicken

Organizations function when decisions are made with consideration of their ethical and moral impact. Organizations are in crisis, as many currently are, unethical decision-making often takes place.

You may find yourself right in the middle of an organization’s unethical decision-making, with the results include increased stress, job dissatisfaction, and concerns about your own job security.

Researchers Sandra Christensen and John Knohls point out that when organizations are in crisis, they perpetuate turmoil, andthat creates “constant stresses for management and employees,” ultimately increasing unethical decisions, worker dissatisfaction, and burnout.

Take Dr Margo Kingston, a PhD-level historian taught at a private college in the Midwestern United States. Several students in one of her classes alerted her that two students were bragging about how they had cheated on her essay test. She found a way to document the students’ cheating on the mid-term and final exams and gave them failing grades.

She reported their cheating to the Dean of the College, but instead of supporting her, he wanted her to give the students a “D” for the semester. Other students in her class were indignant because they had worked very hard for their grades.

She told the Dean that she would not change the grade. The Dean then confided in her that the father of one of the students was currently serving on the state Supreme Court and was a major donor to the university. The message was clear: change the grade or the father would stop contributing to the college.

“I was changed by the experience,” Kingston says. “I saw myself as a person of integrity and honor. As a result of the conflict I experienced between my standards and the standards of administration, I was denied tenure and never again found a position in an American university.

“I underwent years of therapy for depression. Several marriages failed. I learned that my experiences were far from unique, which led to much greater understanding of power politics at all levels of society. I have not given up my ideals, but I am now more cautious and strategic in my thinking. I am no longer naïve but the experience has made me feel more empathy for the ethical conflicts I see other people increasingly experiencing in our society.”

In their review of literature on crisis and unethical behavior, Christensen and Knohls found that organizational crises limit cognitive abilities, reduce consultation with others in a good position to give advice, and limit sources of information because of time constraints.

All of this, the researchers found, increases stress and the potential for unethical decision-making, which may have very negative future consequences for everyone involved in the decision.

What should you do if you’re in a job that forces you to stretch your moral and ethical boundaries?

1. Be proactive.

However low your position may be in an organizational hierarchy, consider the way you might handle yourself if you are asked to do something unethical. You probably have examples in your day to day work of co-workers acting unethically.

Consider how you would act, play out alternatives, and create a bottom line. Having a plan of action always trumps being unprepared.

2. Develop a core of people you can talk to.

Even in situations that require very quick decisions, it’s beneficial to get feedback from trusted sources. Just be careful to select truly trustful individuals.

Perhaps its best to avoid people connected to your job since their advice might be biased or—and you hate to think this about friends— they may give harmful feedback or use your dilemma for their own gain.

3.All professions have guidelines that define ethical behavior.

They may be part of your organization’s mission statement or, if the organization contracts with government, a binding expectation by which your organization must abide. Pointing this out to management might stop an ethical violation in its tracks and could protect you when management tells you to do something you know is unethical and refuse to do.

4. Crisis Team

Every organization, however large or small, should have a crisis team trained in crisis management that can provide assistance to all workers. Nothing is ever static in life and anticipating a crisis and having strategies to deal with it is one of the best ways of avoiding ethical conflicts.

5. Evaluate the Ethical Issue

Be certain that the ethical issue you’re dealing with is actually a moral concern that you hold deeply. People use many different ways of extricating themselves from jobs and moral outrage is always a convenient one because you can blame someone else instead of being honest with yourself that the job isn’t one you really want to have.

6. Consult with Professionals

If the moral issue is one you cannot resolve, even with help from friends, you can always consult professionals who treat work-related problems, which may include mental health specialists working in employee assistance programs or social workers, counselors, psychologists and life coaches in private practice.

It may also include an attorney specializing in worker problems who may help you with legal issues to protect you from doing something on the job that may result in litigation against you, or job loss.

The results of ethical conflicts take their toll over time. Ethical issues tug at our belief system and cause intense inner turmoil that result in high levels of stress that can take a toll on our physical and emotional health.

Don’t let that happen to you. Be proactive and seek appropriate help from colleagues, friends and, when needed, mental and legal professionals. And for certain, don’t be pushed into unethical behavior that may drastically change your job security and future prospects for advancement. You have much more power than you think when you thoughtfully work out alternatives and use them to protect yourself.

Dr. Morley Glicken is Professor Emeritus in social work at the California State University system. Parts of this article come from his newest book: Treating Worker Dissatisfaction in a Time of Economic Change published in 2013 by Elsevier Publishers. His many books are available on at:

He may be contacted at:


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