#PandemicAndBeyond - An ethical dilemma series

10 September 2020

Tags: Anti-Bribery & Corruption (ABC), Speak Up, Pandemic and Beyond, Code of Ethics

In the next blog of the series, Pandemic and Beyond: the ethical issues, Simon Webley, IBE’s Research Director, looks beyond a code of ethics and shares some ethical dilemmas.

Regular surveys of organisations' experiences of ethical behaviour (and mis-behaviour) indicate that a significant majority of their staff really value guidance about behavioural issues not covered by law and regulation. This generally takes the form of a code of ethics, which is normally updated regularly.

But there are some occasions where a situation arises for which, though there is clear guidance on how to react, it is ignored. They rarely come to light but are much more common than one would expect.

So why does this happen? How much is it a threat to an organisation’s reputation?

Here are two ‘anonymous’ examples which have been edited to avoid embarrassment.

Example one

The first involves a director of an international company who shared a recent dilemma she faced when directing a significant project in an African country. She made it clear that she felt she was fortunate to work for an organisation with clear ethical values and with a good reputation for applying them wherever they operated.

This is a summary of Jane’s (not her real name) dilemma. One morning, she received an email from her daughter who was based in the UK, saying that her grandmother was not at all well and had been asking to see Jane. She immediately booked a flight that day to the UK and a driver from the organisation drove her to the airport about twenty miles away.

Around two miles from the departure area, a uniformed policeman signalled for them to pull over. He explained that when the car’s number plate was posted, it showed that the licence had not been renewed and explained that they will have to leave the car until the payment was registered.

Jane said that she was devastated and would miss her flight and greatly disappoint her sick mother. The policeman, seeing her distress, mentioned that it may be possible for her to continue if she would promise that the licence would be purchased, and he was ‘incentivised’ to turn a blind eye.

Jane knew that paying a ‘facilitation payment’ is illegal in the UK (though she did not know if it was in the African country in which she now worked). She was desperate, so she agreed to pay the policeman, but she said she would require a receipt. He laughed and held out his hand. She paid him in cash from her wallet, got back in the car and made it to the airport in time to catch her flight.

The problem Jane shared was that she knew the UK Bribery Act (2010) had an extraterritorial reach and she knew that what she had done was certainly unethical and possibly illegal. She dreaded that it may be made public and she would have to explain that, although she was being driven in a company car, she had paid the policeman out of her own pocket and would not be reclaiming it. But she realised she had not adhered to her company’s ethical standards.

Example two

This dilemma concerns ‘speaking up’ about something that was going on at work which may not be illegal but was certainly unethical.

James had worked for some years for a medium sized company in the UK which manufactured glass products (such as windows) mainly for the building trade. Its code of ethics set out that employees should speak to their manager if they had a conflict of interest involving their work.

His division of the company, which was based in the Midlands, had just secured a large contract to supply the glass panels for the doors of houses being built in a large new estate. James was surprised that this contract had been given priority over another smaller one which he had negotiated and had been signed off a month earlier. He mentioned this to a colleague who said that it was not surprising as the regional manager of their company was the cousin of the owner of the building company that had managed to get their contract prioritised.

James felt this was not fair and wondered if he should make this known to the manager with whom he had been dealing in the other organisation. This was because he reported to his company’s regional manager. He mentioned it again to his colleague. He said an alternative was to send a confidential (or even anonymous) note to the company secretary about it.

After thinking about it, he decided to shrug his shoulders and let it rest. He did not want to make himself unpopular.


Both these incidents are examples of dilemmas which raise questions about the application of an organisation’s guidance on ethical issues.

While a code of ethics is seen as necessary for any organisation to guide staff in how to deal with issues that arise which are not covered by laws or regulations, they are rarely sufficient in themselves to cover all situations. These often require an ethical sensitivity and courage to take the correct action. One way that this can be generated is by initiating regular short sessions where genuine ethical dilemmas can be discussed in small groups at the end say, of a regular briefing session.

Increasing numbers of organisations are encouraging their staff to share an actual dilemma with colleagues before deciding what action to take. Whatever methods are used, the fact that ethical problems are being experienced at all levels on a regular basis requires some means for them to be listened to and resolved if an organisation’s reputation is to be maintained or indeed enhanced. 

Over the next few weeks, as part of the Pandemic and Beyond series we will be exploring some ethical dilemmas that many organisations are facing in the current environment, and we will conclude with a virtual discussion to reflect on our findings.

Please do take part...


#PandemicAndBeyond - Dilemma 1: a sticky situation

In the first dilemma of our Pandemic and Beyond series, we consider what to do when a colleague has been furloughed.

10 Sep 2020



Simon Webley
Simon Webley


Simon advises the research function at the Institute; lending his vast experience and knowledge to help us deliver quality work for organisations who ask for comparative work to be done on aspects of their ethics policies.

Simon has worked in the paper industry and run the UK arm of an international association focusing on Anglo-North American relations.

Simon has an honours degree in Economics and Political Science from Trinity College, Dublin.

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