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Tell Me How You Handle an Ethical Dilemma

There may be times in your professional life when you’re confronted with decisions that call your ethics into question. How do you react? It’s important for a prospective employer to know, and consequently, a topic you may be asked about during a job interview.

We’ll explain how to navigate the sensitive interview question, “Tell me how you handle an ethical dilemma,” and formulate an answer you can feel good about.

Why do interviewers ask how you handle an ethical dilemma?

Ethics are at the forefront of everyday duties for some positions, like a bank teller handling large sums of cash or a nurse administering controlled medications. A prospective employer must carefully vet potential hires’ ethics in these positions.

However, regardless of the field, ethics can come into play in any position. How you respond when your ethics are challenged will give an interviewer an idea of your integrity, decision-making skills, and problem-solving capabilities, all of which are important qualities when selecting the right candidate.

What interviewers are looking for when they ask about ethical dilemmas

When asking how you would respond to an ethical dilemma, an interviewer hopes to learn more about what kind of person you are. They’ll be looking to understand how you determine the “right” thing to do and the factors you consider when deciding. 

An interviewer will also be paying attention to how comfortable you seem with the idea of such a scenario. Does it seem like something you’d struggle with, or would tackling an ethical dilemma be a no-brainer? Your response will be an indicator they’ll use in assessing whether your values align with the organization’s. 

How to answer the interview question ‘Tell me how you handle an ethical dilemma’

Talk about your personal ethics

Start with a strong opening that explains the importance of ethics to you. You can describe how they’re an important part of someone’s character or how they help guide your decision-making. Your explanation should convey a strong sense of your own ethics.

Relate it to the company

Next, draw a correlation between your ethics and the organization’s. You can explain how their values drew you to the company or highlight the fact that you share a similar outlook on doing what’s right.

As you explain your decision-making process, you want to emphasize that you would always prioritize what’s in the organization’s best interest. For example, if you discovered that an employee was stealing, you’d bring it to the attention of a manager rather than looking the other way.

Give an example

Depending on how long you’ve been in the workforce, you may or may not have much experience with ethical issues at work. Still, it will strengthen your answer if you can describe a time you’ve navigated an ethical situation successfully in the past. If you don’t have a specific experience, you could describe a hypothetical situation, like “if a client asked me to go against company policy, I would…”

How not to answer questions about ethical dilemmas

Discuss personal ethical situations

Your answer should focus on work-related activities. Avoid discussing an ethically questionable situation in your personal life, as it could lead to unintentional bias.

Sample answers to ‘Tell me how you handle an ethical dilemma’

Example #1

“Doing the right thing is more important than trying not to rock the boat. I think this is an asset to the company I work for because I’m also looking out for what’s right for the organization. Once, I inadvertently discovered that a colleague was misrepresenting someone else’s work as their own. I knew this person was being considered for a promotion, which made me extra concerned because the situation could end with a deceptive person being placed in a leadership role. 

I waited until I had definite proof the misrepresentation was going on, and then I confronted the colleague. I told him that if he did not own up to his deceit, I would pass along what I had discovered to HR. I don’t know exactly how things unfolded from there, but he ended up resigning a short time later. I felt confident I had made the right decision.”

Example #2

“I always try to handle ethical dilemmas carefully because if I don’t, they weigh on my conscience. This is one of the reasons your company’s mission statement resonated so much with me.

A few years ago, I began to suspect that a colleague called Bill was coming to work intoxicated. At first, I didn’t want to say anything because it wasn’t affecting my job, plus I had no way of knowing for sure. But that all changed one day when we went out for a team lunch, and Bill offered to drive a group to the restaurant. I knew that if I let him get behind the wheel and something happened, I could never forgive myself.

I discretely took my manager aside and told her what was going on. She stepped in and offered to drive instead, which took care of the problem that day. Plus, it put the ball in her court to take further action with Bill if she thought it was appropriate.”

By incorporating your decision-making process and the positive outcome of your actions into your answer, you’ll help the interviewer see your integrity in action and view you as the trustworthy, dependable person that you are.