How to Answer ‘Have You Ever Faced an Ethical Dilemma?’

Interviewers will sometimes ask you some truly difficult questions, like whether you faced an ethical dilemma. Here’s our step-by-step guide to crafting an effective response.

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Every person comes across an ethical dilemma each day of their waking life. It can be as mundane as taking credit for someone else’s work or as severe as picking up a $20 banknote off the street while knowing who it belonged to. As the saying goes, to err is to be human. Nobody’s perfect, and that is a universal fact. But committing too many unethical acts can call into question your character and constitution.

Hiring managers will ask candidates a common interview question: ‘Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma?’ For the most part, this interview question applies to a professional incident rather than your personal life, although you could certainly delve into an intimate matter.

Indeed, it is undoubtedly a tough interview question to answer, whether out of embarrassment or you cannot think of a professional incident. That said, if you’re unsure how to respond to this question, don’t worry! We’ve put together a step-by-step guide to help you craft an effective response.

1. Understand why hiring managers ask this question

The primary reason companies ask this question is to gauge your moral standards and values as an employee and where they align with the firm’s corporate endeavours. Interviewers want to see if you took an ethical stance in your professional career, even if it meant threatening your position.

Some of the best ways to explain when you faced an ethical dilemma include:

  • Speaking with a senior level manager or supervisor regarding the matter
  • Consulting with the company’s employee handbook
  • Using your own best judgement and moral purview when faced with an ethical dilemma

2. Think of an incident and how you handled it

When you faced an ethical dilemma, how did you handle it? This is asked to find out what happened and how you endured. Moreover, interviewers will present this question to determine your instincts, your ability to think on your feet, and what other behaviours you employed to resolve this kind of conflict in the workplace. It could also serve as an opportunity to explain that you made a mistake and that you have learned and developed from either a moral transgression or ethical situation.

Here are a few tips to respond to this query:

  • You can go through a list of ethical dilemma(s) that might have made you lose sleep at night
  • It would help if you talked about a distant professional incident and not one that recently took place
  • If you have not had an ethical situation in the workplace, perhaps think about college or university

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3. Put the company’s best interests first

Hiring managers are interested in determining if you considered the company’s position when you came across this ethical dilemma. As a result, employers will hire applicants who have been forthright and decisive when faced with difficult circumstances, confident that these workers will be emphasising the firm’s standards and values. Plus, if you wish to grow with the organisation, the business will know full well that you’re reliable and trustworthy.

Here are a couple of suggestions to answer this part of the interview process:

  • You thought about the company’s reputation in the broader sector as a whole
  • You looked to your superiors to help you grapple with a tough case
  • If you’re responding from the perspective of your college days, you can reply by figuring out what the school’s policies were in your day

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4. Consider the company’s mission and values

Every business – large or small – possesses a mission and maintains core values. Are you someone who shares these principles? Are you a worker who will put these missions and values first in your work? Are you a professional who follows the necessary protocols provided by management? If so, the hiring manager wants to know, and they will ask you about your previous experience with these concepts at past places of employment.

However, even if you did not consider these aspects, there are still many ways to answer this interview question correctly. Here are a few ideas on how to answer this part of the interview:

  • You can note that everything you did was by the book
  • You sought out advice, even from the higher-ups, when you weren’t sure about something
  • You didn’t consider veering away from the company’s mission and values because it’s not in your character

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5. Emphasise the importance of acting with honesty and integrity

‘Well, I’m sorry to inform you, but “honesty” is my middle name.’

Yes, this is an example of how you can give an answer to the interviewer. But if you do not wish to be obsequious, you can always home in on why it’s imperative to act with honesty and integrity in both your professional and personal existence. This is music to the ears of the individual conducting the interviews, whether it’s the owner or head of the HR department. The hiring manager wants to find out if you understand why it’s crucial to be honest and maintain an attitude of integrity.

Here are some ways to include this into your response:

  • Offer an example of a situation where you place honesty and integrity front and centre
  • Go into detail about how you emphasised these traits in any of your professional roles
  • Explain how honesty and integrity were always attributes instilled in you since you were a young person

6. Use an example for inspiration

When you’re stumped on how to provide the best possible answer, here’s an example of how to answer the question ‘Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma?’:

In my first job out of college, I was working at a tech startup. One of the employees had been working for the firm from the beginning. He would routinely charge the company for many frivolous things, adding more costs to the entrepreneur who put most of his income in the business. The person had encouraged me to copy his behaviour because the owner would, according to him, ‘not know about it’. I thought this was wrong, not only because it was theft, but also because the owner had taken a chance on a young kid out of university and offered a highly competitive salary. I don’t like finking, but I captured the necessary documentation and showed it to the owner. He really appreciated it in the end after learning the employee stole thousands of dollars.

This answer covers many bases: the dilemma, the company’s best interests, your integrity and how you handled it.

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Final thoughts

We all come across ethical dilemmas every day in our lives. Some of them are minuscule, while others can really test your overall character. It’s certainly challenging to be human at times, but this is life, and you will know inside you if something is right or wrong, no matter how intricate or obscure.

Does being honest and ethical come naturally to you, or does it require lots of thinking? Whatever the case may be, companies want to know if candidates have ever grappled with an ethical dilemma that tested their professionalism. If you can provide a great response, you will have had a successful interview.

Join the conversation! Got a question about this interview question or need some advice in general? Let us know in the comments section below!

This article is an update of an earlier version published on 19 June 2014.