Test your ethics: 11 real-world ethical challenges

I’ve faced many ethics quandaries in my long career. You will, too. Everyone believes they are ethical. But when it’s time to decide, what will you actually do?

Real-life ethics test

Here’s a list of ethical situations, most of which I actually faced. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do?

In the interest of transparency, I’ll share what actually happened in the first comment.

  1. Founder stock. As an analyst, you write frequently about an industry, including a rapidly growing startup company. You consult to the startup, providing valuable advice, as part of your job. As the startup prepares to go public, its founders offer you stock which will likely be worth at least $25,000. Do you accept the stock?
  2. Ads placed by mistake. While your phone is in your pocket, random taps cause it to identify one of your tweets and place ads to promote it. (I know, sounds unlikely, but yes, this actually happened.) Your debit card is billed $350 for the ads before you notice and can stop it. What do you do?
  3. Expense account overtip. While in Las Vegas on a business trip, you take a taxi between two hotels. The bill is about $7; you give the cabbie a $10 and say “Keep it.” Later, you realize that you actually gave the cab driver a $100 bill (because the ATMs in Las Vegas dispense hundred-dollar bills). How much do you claim on your expense report?
  4. Free blender. You write up a case study about Blendtec blenders (“Will it Blend?”) in a book that sells well. You later visit the blender company in Utah and make a promotional “Will it Blend?” video about the book with the CEO. The CEO sends you a very nice blender as a thank-you. The value of the blender exceeds the limits in your company’s gift policy, but not by much. Do you keep the blender?
  5. Minor accident. You are an American on vacation in London. Driving on the left is new to you. While driving a rental car with your small child in the back seat, you come to close to a parked car and clip the side view mirror with your own. There is no damage to your car; it’s not clear how much damage there is to the other car’s mirror as you drive by. You’re late and your family is waiting for you. What do you do?
  6. Stock options. Your company grants you stock options as part of your employment. Options worth over $15,000 appear in your account, but they are beyond what you are owed by the employment contract; there appears to be an error. What do you do?
  7. Hotel mixup. You arrive at a hotel in Paris early in the morning after a flight. You have instructed the travel agent to book you for the day before to ensure the room will be available in the morning. The travel agent misunderstands and books two days before, so you are billed for an extra hotel night. What do you claim on the expense account?
  8. Plagiarist boss. Your boss has a column in a publication. He takes something you wrote, revises it so it appears that it happened to him, and submits it to the publication. You find out after the column has been submitted. What do you do?
  9. Client impasse. You contract to write a book proposal for a client. Your initial drafts are weak because the client contributes very little in the way of actual ideas to work with. The client complains that you’ve done a poor job because there are typos in the draft. You keep asking to meet to get more of the client’s ideas; the client is nonresponsive. You’ve already been paid $7,500 for the first half of the work. What do you do?
  10. Speech reversal. You coauthor a book with colleagues and then make an agreement with your coauthors; each of you will give a keynote speech at one of your company’s events. The person in charge of one of the events contacts one of your coauthors and after that conversation, decides that you have lied to her (the event chair). She confronts you in front of another employee, accuses you of dishonesty, and says that your coauthor, not you, will be giving the speech at her event. What do you do?
  11. Goal manipulation. Your colleagues on your team must meet certain goals to earn bonuses. Another group at the company has figured out a loophole in the accounting system that it can use to help your colleagues meet their goals; they offer these incentives in exchange for favors they need for their own work. (The favors are things your colleagues ought to be doing anyway, but this persuasion makes them more willing to prioritize helping the other group.) While this activity seems wrong, it has no effect any of the company’s publicly reported numbers. What do you do?

Write down your answers. Then read the comments.

What would you do differently from what I did? And what ethical challenges did you face? What did you do?

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  1. Here’s what actually happened. I’m being very honest here — while it’s easy to cast aspersions on my ethics, you should first ask yourself if you would, in truth, behave differently.

    1. Founder stock. I refused the stock. Accepting it would have been a clear violation of the company’s integrity policy, and would have cast doubt on my future objectivity about the company.

    2. Ads placed by mistake. I filed a complaint about the bill with Twitter, but they refused it. In the end, I paid. It was my mistake, as much as I’d like to blame Twitter.

    3. Expense account overtip. I filed an expense of $10 for the cab ride. I decided the company shouldn’t pay for my mistake.

    4. Free blender. I kept the blender.

    5. Minor accident. In the moment, I decided that the complexity and hassle of going back and checking and then dealing with accidents and insurance in a foreign country was just too much to deal with since my family was waiting for me. I regret this. Years later, somebody clipped my car while it was sitting at the curb by my house and broke the mirror, which cost $350 to replace. Karmic retribution, I suppose.

    6. Stock options. I reported the extra options to the company that maintained my account. After several phone calls, they finally removed them. They came back as credits in the next statement. Then I reported it to the company’s CFO. He was fired for unrelated reasons. There appeared to be no way to get rid of the stock. Eventually, I sold the stock. I reported the gain to the IRS with a basis of $0.

    7. Hotel mixup. I included the extra day’s cost in my expense report.

    8. Plagiarist boss. I was livid. I ended up resolving the problem with the help of another person in the department whom my boss trusted. He relented, withdrew the column, and replaced it with one written by me that accurately identified what happened and to whom.

    9. Client impasse. I offered to refund $6000 of the $7500 to the client. He accepted. I want every client to be happy.

    10. Speech reversal. I strenuously denied being dishonest. I accepted my coauthor giving the speech and didn’t make further trouble.

    11. I reported the situation to the person in charge of the company’s “whistleblower line,” who was the corporate counsel. They conducted an investigation and eventually closed the loophole. No one knew why they made the change; my involvement in opening the complaint remained confidential. This event raised my level of trust with the corporate counsel, which was helpful in many future situations.

  2. You’re a good man Charlie Brown. I really appreciate the candor, and the opportunity to review my own standards, past and future. I paid a lot several times for my refusal to compromise my ethical standards in a senior executive capacity. Now that I am long and happily retired, I know for certain that I am glad I did so. I have no regrets, and I am proud of my decisions. Certainly for me, that’s worth a lot as you get to the point where you start looking back on your life because you are getting to the end of it.

  3. Every time I have allowed myself to be devious or dishonest it has come back in some way to smack me. If the scanner at the supermarket misses some of my groceries, I go to Customer Service and make whole. When at an auction I noticed on my receipt that my bid amounts had been under-recorded on three lots, I went to the window to report it and made whole. We all like things for free or to come out ahead. But as I said to the manager of the supermarket when I made whole for around $40, we are taught that love is what makes the world go around, but I say instead it is honesty and integrity; moral character. We seemingly live in an age when lies and deception are at an all-time high. I grew up at a time when there was no such thing as fake news or the need to do fact-checking. We each have our part to do to maintain our own moral character and set an example for others to do as well.