Interview Question: ‘Have You Faced an Ethical Dilemma?'

A young woman attending a job interview with a male recruiter

Interview questions can be tough at the best of times. Throw behavioural questions into the mix, and things get even tougher.

One such question is ‘Can you tell me about a time you faced an ethical dilemma?’.

But what if you’ve never found yourself in an ethics-testing situation before? And what if the first scenario that comes to mind is one that you don’t really want to share with your potential manager?

To help you adequately prepare and impress the interviewing panel, we’ve put together this guide that will teach you how to perfect your answer.

Why hiring managers ask this question

The purpose of this question is to see what your morals and values are as an employee. They want to know if your moral standards align with those of the company and if you have ethical solutions to problems that you face.

Interviewers essentially want to find a candidate that is responsible and sustainable, and this tricky interview question helps filter potential hires with good moral values from those that would be untrustworthy.

How to prepare a response

Use these tips to help you describe a time where you faced an ethical dilemma at work and show how you dealt with it.

1. Check the company’s mission statement

The first step to take when preparing an answer for an ethical dilemma interview question is to check out what the company’s values are. While ethics are largely the same across different professional environments, you want to show your interviewer how your personal values align with those of the company.

2. Think of a professional incident where you faced ethical dilemmas

The second step is to think long and hard of an incident that you faced in the workplace. Think about how this challenged your ethics and what you did to handle it. Were you asked to do something unethical? And did you report or confront the offender?

Consider using the STAR method when structuring your answer. First, explain the context of the example (Situation), then what your role was in the situation (Task), followed by the actions you took towards the goal (Action) and, finally, the outcome based on your actions (Result).

3. Focus on putting the company’s interests first

When preparing your answer to this tricky question, you need to make sure you choose a situation that shows you have put the company’s interests first. For example, if you witnessed a colleague stealing, you need to describe how their actions put your employer at risk. In other words, you should have confronted your colleague and notified your manager of their wrongdoing.

4. Stress the importance of honesty and integrity

Honesty and integrity are essential in all professions – without this personal trait, you won’t be trusted or be able to progress within an organisation. So, when you’re forming your answer, you need to choose a scenario that best highlights your ethical values.

This is especially vital for medical professions; you will always need to put the patient’s health and comfort first and report anyone who is going against medical procedures and best practices.

5. Practise your answer

Practising your answer will help you appear more confident. It can often be difficult to talk about ethical situations, so ensure you sound natural by perfecting your answer beforehand. You can even record yourself and play it back or do a mock interview with a family member to help with the process.

Sample answers

To help you fine-tune your answer, we’ve listed a few examples below that can be used as a guide.

  • When I was working as a waitress, a customer dropped $100 from his pocket as he was leaving his table. Although I could have ignored it and pocketed an extra $100 that day, I decided against it and ran after him to give him his money. He thanked me profusely and went home that evening to send the company an email and express his gratitude. My good ethics proved that my values aligned with those of the company and aided in my progression over the course of my employment.
  • During my night shift at the local hospital, I noticed that another nurse gave a patient a high dose of medication to help her sleep throughout the night. However, according to medical standards, she shouldn’t have prescribed such a high amount. I confronted her by asking why she prescribed this dose and informed her that I would report her unethical behaviour to the night manager. Although the patient was fine, it could have ended very differently, so I didn’t want to risk something terrible happening to any other patients.
  • I used to approve my boss’s expenses until she asked me to say that I was at lunch when I wasn’t. This really tested my ethics because I knew that if I didn’t approve them, my manager would find a reason to try and get rid of me or make my life a living hell. However, I didn’t feel right lying to cover for her. For this reason, I told her that I just couldn’t tell a lie and that she should value my honesty. In the end, she didn’t put her personal expense through the business.

Mistakes to avoid

1. Saying that you’ve never faced an ethical dilemma

The world isn’t perfect, and you’re bound to have run into some sort of dilemma, especially if you’ve worked in a customer-facing role. That said, your answer doesn’t have to be anything serious or life-changing; it just needs to be honest and showcase your values.

2. Giving an example from your personal life

People do good deeds every day and are often faced with the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decision, and although giving money to charity shows that you have good ethics, it doesn’t necessarily provide any insight into how you would behave as an employee.

If you’re stuck for answers, avoid going into any personal stories. Instead, try to think of something from your days at school, and use that as an example.

3. Using a hypothetical scenario

Hiring managers can tell when you’re lying or fabricating a story. So, be sure to be truthful when giving your answer. If not, you might have ruined any chance you had at securing your job as you’ll have painted yourself as a liar – and nobody wants a fibber in their organisation!

Talking about ethics is challenging; you want to make sure you say the right thing and not damage your chances of securing a new job.

After reading this guide, you will hopefully have all the tools you need to answer this challenging interview question and impress the interview panel.

Have you ever had to answer this interview question before? What example did you use? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.

Are you prepping for an interview? Find out what to wear and how to style your hair to impress the hiring manager the minute you walk through the door!


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