Feb 10, 2023 8 min read

Free Guide : Tackling Ethical Dilemmas with Confidence

We face many dilemmas at work. Do we promote this product or that product, or choose this supplier over that supplier? Being good at making those choices helps individuals and firms succeed. The trickiest type of dilemma are often the ethical ones, influenced by emotions and difficult choices.

ethical dilemmas
Tricky choices can have significant outcomes

These happen where the ethical side to a situation doesn’t sit comfortably with other things going on in it. Questions like ‘is this right’ or ‘are we being honest’ surface. How they’re answered is bound to have consequences, for your firm’s reputation, for your personal accountability and for your social reputation.

This free guide will help you recognise ethical dilemmas and take you through a series of steps for handling them. You’ll learn what makes some ethical dilemmas easy to tackle, others hard. These steps will give you skills for tackling them with confidence, something that will stand you in good stead in your career.

Remember that insurance is becoming more complex – all that innovation, use of data, and smart processes. Add to that a performance culture that often looks for the regular delivery of stretching results. This means that more ethical dilemmas, and more tricky ones, are likely to arise in the near future. Looking forward, you’re going to be tested more often, not less.

What Makes an Ethical Dilemma?

So what exactly is an ethical dilemma? A plain and simple dilemma is “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives”. What turns a simple dilemma into an ethical one is that the difficult choice in some way involves values.

So what are those values? Some of them are ethical values like fairness, transparency and honesty. Others are business values like teamwork, loyalty and innovation. Consider these values of one UK insurer: passionate, focussed, local, teamwork, trusted and entrepreneurial. Only one of those six corporate values is an ethical value, which is ‘trusted’. The other five are business values.

Remember that a business value like teamwork might be emphasised, but be in tension with an ethical value like fairness. The difficult choice could involve dealing with something a colleague has done or ignoring what this means in terms of fair outcomes for customers. Or it could be between a business value like pragmatism and an ethical value like integrity. The difficult choice could involve a colleague defending questionable actions because ‘everyone else is doing this’.

These tensions can arise, and more often than people think. Being good at ethical dilemmas goes a long way to resolving them.

Becoming Aware of an Ethical Dilemma

Ethical dilemmas can sometimes really stand out, especially where someone’s personal values are involved. Other times, people can just sense something is not right. What’s common is that it’s rare for someone to be calling them an ‘ethical dilemma’, but everyone knows there is ‘a situation’.

A firm’s culture matters here. If that culture is strong on values, then people tune more quickly into the dilemma being an ethical one. If however values are something people never really talk about, then the ethical dilemma would of course be just as real, but it would tend to be less recognised and so at risk of going unaddressed.

What this adds up to is that being familiar with ethical values and business values equips you to be more aware of ethical dilemmas as they arise. This then allows you to address them and so head off a potential problem for your firm. This makes ‘awareness’ the first stage of tackling an ethical dilemma with confidence.

Forming a Judgement

With stage one being ‘awareness’, stage two has to be about forming a judgement. Two factors are influential here: emotion and information.

It’s common for the situation around an ethical dimension to be charged with different types and differing levels of emotion. You can see emotions like anger and anxiety in the people involved, but you also need to recognise that your own emotions will be at play too. Don’t let this cause you to back away though – recognising the emotions involved will help you deal with the situation more confidently.

Gather the Information

Let’s turn to that second factor – information. It’s at the heart of these first four steps for tackling an ethical dilemma with confidence:

Identify who’s got an interest in the dilemma, so that you’ve got a clear picture of everyone with a stake in how it emerged and how it can be resolved. Do this on two levels: those who had an influence in the dilemma emerging, and those who could be influenced by the outcome of the dilemma.

Make sure you’re clear about all the facts, by checking what you’ve been told and asking for clarification of any grey areas. You may need to peel away some layers of the story to uncover underlying influences.

Put yourself in the right frame of mind, because you may come across some contentious views, such as ‘everyone does this’ and ‘it didn’t do any real harm’’. Being in the right frame of mind also helps you remember that often staff try to do the right thing, but don’t find it easy.

Set out the dilemma in clear terms, in order to identify the ethical issues underlying it. This step will help structure your thinking and start to clarify options for how it could eventually be resolved.

An Intention to Act

It can sometimes happen that we form a judgement on a situation, but then fail to act upon it. How can we take that key step from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’, to move from an intention to act, to actually taking action on an ethical dilemma? At the heart of how best to do this is a widening of perspective.

This involves standing back for a minute and considering a longer time frame, and taking account of people not immediately connected with the dilemma. That longer time frame shows us what the decision we are about to take could look like in hindsight, in a year or so’s time. And that wider audience means that we are more likely to wonder what that decision will look like to others who are not involved in the dilemma, but who could be interested in how it is dealt with.

Gaining Control

These things stop us jumping to a quick decision, or to one designed more around appeasing the dilemma’s immediate audience. This helps us to gain control over the decision and give it more careful thought.

So who are the other people from whose perspective we can look at this ethical dilemma? They are the people who influence what is called our social reputation, so for example, our family, our friends, colleagues at work and the local insurance community.

Researchers have found that unethical decision making tends to be more intuitive and automatic. In contrast, ethical decision making has been found to be more rational, considered and deliberate. So if we give ourselves more time, if we reflect upon how others might see our decision, then we are more likely to avoid making those automatic and intuitive responses and instead create space for a more rational and considered response.

Using Your Radar

Here are three more steps for tackling an ethical dilemma with confidence, this time built around forming an intention to act upon the dilemma.

Look for similar situations that have happened in the past, but don’t necessarily treat them as a precedent for how you have to handle your situation. Look at what difficulties were faced, how they were dealt with, how well the final decision achieved its intentions and what you could learn (both good and bad) from all that.

View the dilemma through the lens of the firm’s values and the opinions of people who matter to you, for two reasons: firstly, to identify which (and whose) values are in tension, and secondly, as a guide to how the dilemma can be resolved and the experience learnt from.

Identify your options for how the dilemma could be resolved, so that there are alternatives for you to weigh up. Then map out the implications of each, from both an upside and downside perspective.

Deciding To Act

So far we’ve covered three of the four stages for tackling ethical dilemmas with confidence: awareness, judgement and intention. The fourth is about actually making the decision and acting upon it.

Remember that dilemmas arise out of tricky situations, so your decision is unlikely to satisfy everyone with an interest in its resolution. And bear in mind that your decision isn’t going to be a black box one – it is bound to become more widely known and critiqued. It’s worth preparing for that.

Choose the option that best resolves the tension in the situation, remembering that if the best option doesn’t look the easiest in the short term, upholding it can send out a long term signal to staff. Think about the fairness of your chosen option and how it might look in the public domain.

Ask a trusted colleague for a second opinion on your preferred option, because you won’t be the only one in your firm who wants to have ethical behaviours reinforced. Receiving feedback from a critical friend will test the robustness of your case, as well as allow the meaning and intent of certain aspects to be aired and discussed. It could also give you an ally outside of the immediate situation.

Implementing Your Decision

This stage of tackling an ethical dilemma is pretty similar to good plain decision making. At the same time, the emotional side to ethical dilemmas, the trickiness of the situation, the personal values often involved, make the delivery of these three steps more important than most everyday decisions.

Make your final decision and implement it clearly and concisely, by confirming it to those involved, so that they are clear about what’s to happen and why. Being open with those involved will add to the credibility of your decision. Make sure that you frame your communication as something positive coming out of a ‘commitment to values’ rather than the ‘imposition of an ethical rule’.

Have your decision communicated to other staff, for being open in this way tells staff that the firm is serious about upholding relevant values and is prepared to back that up in its decisions. This will also give staff greater confidence to use those values to deal with their own ethical challenges.

Take steps to minimise the impacts of your decision, where that’s possible, while still upholding your decision and how you arrived at it. This can be reassuring for staff not involved in the original situation, but who may still be looking on to see what the repercussions are and how they’re being handled.

Avoid A Repetition

Ethical dilemmas can sometimes feel like an interruption to your normal routine, so the temptation can be to now return quickly to your everyday work. Yet clearly unless the background influences are addressed, it’s quite possible that the situation will just erupt again in the near future. These steps help you to avoid that by addressing the dilemma’s proximate cause.

Review company policies and processes to avoid a repetition, because ethical dilemmas are often experiences that people can learn from. Typical questions to ask include: is your ethics training going to help staff make better ethical decisions in such situations next time round? Are your firm’s values fully understood by staff, and being properly implemented? Is the right support available for staff who are uncertain about how to respond to a serious concern?

Afterwards, reflect on how you found handling this ethical dilemma, so that you can be better prepared for the next one. Did you find some of the arguments you heard difficult to counter? Consider practicing your responses to such arguments so you can address them more confidently next time round. Use how you feel about your handling of this dilemma to get ready to handle the next one better.

Finally, make sure those in charge at your firm give out the right ‘tone from the top’ on the ethical issues raised in this dilemma, for when staff see the firm’s leaders ‘walking the talk’, they are more likely themselves to face up to difficult choices and make the right ethical decision next time round.


I hope this is useful. Any questions – get in touch.

Here are three ways in which I can help…

  • craft training source for people to practice complex ethical dilemmas
  • review training provision around ethics and where it needs to be focussed
  • act as a critical friend in a post-dilemma review
Duncan Minty
Duncan Minty
Duncan has been researching and writing about ethics in insurance for over 20 years. As a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, he combines market knowledge with a strong and independent radar on ethics.
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