Ethical Theory Frameworks in the Workplace


This action plan will explore the effectiveness of numerous ethical theory frameworks and their application to ethical dilemmas in the workplace. A deeper analysis will be performed on ethical dilemma resolution and the specific ethical implications that may arise. Previous ethical dilemma Background The ethical dilemma that will be used for this action plan is the termination of employment for inappropriate behaviour via the use of social media. An apprentice made some inappropriate remarks on Facebook aimed at a work colleague (in a superior position) that were intended to be an attempt at humour however; they were taken by the colleague as offensive.

The issue was quite concerning as there was no previous documented occurrence of this type of issue within the organisation and as such, the method of resolution was unclear by both management and staff members. The resolution was the termination of employment of the apprentice and the development of a much needed ‘staff social media policy’ that outlined what was deemed to be appropriate behaviour and how there was a link between social media and the organisation’s bullying and harassment policy.

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The victim who initially made the complaint felt mixed emotions regarding the outcome as he did not intend on such an extreme penalty to be handed down as the two were actually friends. The victim being a superior felt that if he had dealt with the issue himself it may damage the friendship and result in tension in the workplace so therefore assumed if the matter was dealt with by an independent party the issue could be dealt with avoiding any damage to the friendship.

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The approach actually resulted in the matter being escalated and becoming quite an issue for the organisation. Ethical implications from the employee perspective Relationships form a fundamental key in effectiveness at work. The relationships formed with superiors, subordinates and colleagues alike can all impact productivity and general well-being in the workplace. An example of this may be one’s ability to discuss an issue with a colleague in an open and honest way without causing hostility. Another example may be approaching a superior about a delicate situation without feeling intimidated; or alternatively to reverse the situation, when a subordinate approaches a superior.

McFarlin (2013, p.1) states ‘Many full-time employees spend more of their waking hours with co-workers than they do with their spouses and families. As such, it is important to allow employees the opportunity to build quality relationships with their co-workers’ and believes that quality relationships at work can lead to: improved teamwork, improved morale, higher employee retention rates and increased productivity. When employees are encouraged to build quality relationships, it can assist the collaborative process and can help overcome feelings of isolation, particularly for new members of a team. These quality relationships can ultimately provide a positive workplace where staff may work harder and feel connected to an organisation. There will always be times where relationships are tested, particularly when faced with ethical dilemmas, or when professional relationships potentially cross into personal relationships.

While it is good to have a positive office space or working arrangement, it can possibly restrict the authority of a manager/supervisor if they are seen to be more of a friend than as a ‘boss’. Miksen (2013, p.1) believes that ‘whether you work part-time or are pushing 60 hours a week at your job, you should look at your co-workers as something more than strangers. Building personal relationships in the workplace allows you to work together more effectively with your co-workers and surrounds you with friends while clocked in’. This is a view that some managers and possibly most staff members would agree with. Patrick (2013, p.1) on the other hand, believes that relationships in the workplace should be strictly professional rather than personal. It is fine to be personable to an extent however; workplace relationships should be guided by specific boundaries. Patrick (2013, p.1) states ‘abandoning parameters can create conflict, loss of respect and even embarrassment’ and offers the opinion that boundaries can often ‘firm’ up grey areas, clarify job descriptions, increase efficiency and make a workplace more productive.

This is can be observed in most workplaces when staff members approach upper management or those in senior roles, as when put in comparison to the general discussions with colleagues and co-workers. It can be said that workplace relationships can be effective if there is an element of personal feeling involved however; specific guidelines should be set in order to maintain professional conduct. Zeiger (2014) believes that social media allows increased communication in the workplace and allows employees to build relationships which can be beneficial if managed effectively however; goes on to conclude: ‘Social networking has the ability to hurt employee relations within a company. Employees may send negative messages or harass one another through social networking sites and hinder their ability to work together’.

This behaviour is a particularly difficult issue to manage as the consequences of one’s actions may not be fully understood via the use of social media due to the absence of immediate repercussions from one’s actions. Jung (2014) agrees: ‘the anonymity afforded online can bring out dark impulses that might otherwise be suppressed’. Regardless of any unknown consequences or understanding of one’s actions, the behaviour demonstrated in person or online has a close relationship to virtue ethical theory and the internal character of a person. Virtue ethics basically encompass moral judgement and provide a basis for which to develop one’s ethical decisions based on the individual’s internal character.

Gowdy (2013) believes that virtue ethics is a classification within Normative Ethics that attempts to distinguish moral character, and to apply the moral character as a basis for one's choices and actions’. Ultimately there has to be some accountability for one’s individual actions whether the consequences are fully understood or not. Herboso (2014) agrees and goes on to state: ‘Virtue ethics focuses on the idea that what we call good is not dependent on the actions we take (deontologicalism) nor the results of those actions (consequentialism), but instead focuses on the person that we are’.

Ethical implications from the employer perspective

Many employees believe that what happens outside of work is impartial to the conditions of employment however; the code of conduct for most organisations is in place to protect its employees and provide a safe environment for work. The effects of bullying in the workplace are known to be serious issues and legislation does exists to protect employees however; it is unclear as to what extents bullying may go to and the forms it may come in. The increasing demand for technology and use of social media means that employers’ responsibilities in regards to this issue will have to cater for a variety of issues. Caponecchia (2012) believes that online bullying is a particularly contentious workplace issue that is not fully understood and goes on to state: ‘There is sometimes reluctance in organisations to think about psychological hazards from within the risk management framework that they employ for all other hazards. Sometimes it is just a lack of awareness’.

The fact that an employee lost his employment as a result of inappropriate social media use demonstrates how serious the organisation is taking this issue. What was unclear at the time (prior to any social media policy) was what the expectations were in terms of appropriate behaviour specifically relating to social media however; regardless of any policy the expectation of respect for colleagues is still there. The termination of employment appeared to be a harsh penalty given the context of the breach and the relationship between the colleagues however; it is in the best interest of an employer to set clear expectations on behaviour and what is deemed to be unacceptable.

Employers are bound by legislation to protect employees from any type of bullying or harassment therefore the choice is limited and employers are forced to hand out harsh penalties for such acts. Brush (2014) agrees and goes on to state: ‘The duty placed on employers by work health and safety legislation to provide a healthy and safe working environment and safe systems of work imposes the responsibility on employers to ensure not only the physical health of their workers, but also their mental health. This includes ensuring that employees are not exposed to workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination’ Brush (2014) agrees that the anonymous nature of information and communication technology has created a difficult issue to manage that provides a very unfamiliar platform for bullying and harassment in the workplace but nevertheless the aim of today's information and communication technology is to improve the quality of modern life not impede it. Ethical dilemma resolution and ethical theory

Resolution method

The resolution method for the primary incident was to terminate the employment in order to set clear expectations for the consequences of future bullying and harassment breaches and expectations in terms of social media behaviour. While this was considered by many as quite an extreme measure the fact that expectations are now clearly set and the punishment is so severe, means there is no more confusion as to what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate online social media behaviour. Billikopf (2006) goes on to state ‘effective discipline can protect the organization, the supervisor who enforces the rules, and the subordinates subject to the same. Everyone suffers when there are mixed messages concerning misconduct and discipline’. The secondary action was to develop a clear social media policy that outlined what was deemed to be appropriate behaviour in terms of social media use and its correlation to the organisations bullying and harassment policy already in place.

Weekes (2013) believes: ‘As social media becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, its effect on businesses is increasing. This is why it’s important to have a social media policy in place in your workplace. Even if your business doesn’t use social media – your employees might’. Edmond (2013) believes that social media policies are a crucial step in upholding the ethical conduct of a business though agrees that social media is a difficult platform to manage by stating: ‘Ultimately, sovereignty over social media identities rests on the individual. It is impossible to take control of an employee’s standing online, and employers should simply not attempt this. However, designing and implementing a strong social media policy can alleviate employers of legal ramifications, as well as ensure employees become aware of how their actions affect the company’. Ethical decision making Ingram (2014) offers a five step approach to ethical decision making in the workplace detailed below: Step one: Create a code of ethics and consult it before making business decisions. Ingram (2014) states: ‘A formal code of ethics can help you and your employees make decisions more quickly by conforming to a set of rules to which everyone agrees’.

This is consistent with the organisational code of ethics, specifically regarding respect however; the expectations of social media behaviour were not explicitly detailed at the time of the resolution. Step two: Consider the effects of your decisions on all stakeholders. Ingram (2014) believes it is critical to understand the wider implications of decisions on all stakeholders affected. This is consistent with consequentialist theory and has particular value in this ethical dilemma where there are various layers involved in the issue such as: personal relationships, unclear expectations in terms of behaviour and unfavourable outcomes for all parties involved. Step three: Use industry regulations as a starting point when making decisions. Industry regulations such as legislation regarding workplace bullying and harassment may be important to consider in this example however; the context of the relationship pollutes the clarification of the issue in terms of the original action and the outcome of the resolution. Step four: Consult others when making decisions with widespread consequences. Ingram (2014) goes on to state: ‘Gaining a fresh perspective on your dilemma can help to shed light on possibilities and impacts of which you are unaware.

You can ask for help in generating options and in choosing which option to pursue, or you can seek advice concerning an option that you have already chosen before implementing it’. This again reinforces the consequentialist theory relevance in this example and differs from the deontological approach. Step five: Review the results of your past business decisions, and learn from your mistakes. This final step is crucial for the ongoing success of ethical conduct in the workplace however; in this specific example there is some unfamiliarity regarding the social media platform. The future conduct of the business will definitely see some benefit from the clarification of the organisation’s stance of what is considered as social media bullying and harassment though this issue poses the argument that this resolution has created a ‘scape goat’ in order to set an organisational standard.

May (2014) offers more comprehensive nine step guide to ethical decision making detailed below:

Step one: Gather the facts May (2014) specifies not to make any assumptions as facts may be difficult to find because of the uncertainty often found around ethical issues.

Step two: Define the ethical issues May (2014) states: ‘Don’t jump to solutions without first identifying the ethical issue(s) in the situation, define the ethical basis for the issue you want to focus on and consider there may be multiple ethical issues – focus on one major one at a time’.

Step three: Identify the affected parties (stakeholders) Consider multiple perspectives and consider not only the primary stakeholders but any indirect stakeholders. In this case the indirect stakeholder is actually the victim as the resolution handed down resulted in damaged friendship and increased tension in the workplace.

Step four: Identify the consequences

May (2014) states: ‘think about potential positive and negative consequences for affected parties by the decision’. This is consistent with consequentialist theory and reinforces the importance of consequentialist theory in contrast to deontological framework.

Step five: Identify the obligations (principles, rights, justice) May (2014) believes: ‘Obligations should be thought of in terms of principles and rights involved. What obligations are created because of particular ethical principles you might use in the situation and what obligations are created because of the specific rights of the stakeholders’.

Step six: Consider your character and integrity May (2014) states: ‘What decision would you come to based solely on character considerations?’ This aligns with virtue ethical theory and begins to form the concept that ethical resolutions or decision making should consider multiple ethical theory frameworks.

Step seven: Think creatively about potential actions

Ensure that you have not been unnecessarily ‘forced into a corner’ and consider that there may be other alternative solutions available. May (2014) offers the opinion: ‘If you have come up with solutions “a” and “b,” try to brainstorm and come up with a “c” solution that might satisfy the interests of the primary parties involved in the situation’.

Step eight: Check your gut May (2014) goes on to state: ‘Even though the prior steps have argued for a highly rational process, it is always good to “check your gut.” Intuition is gaining credibility as a source for good decision making – knowing something is not right’.

Step nine: Decide on the proper ethical action and be prepared to deal with opposing arguments. May (2014) believes that the consideration of potential actions based on the consequences, obligations, and character approaches are crucial elements in any ethical dilemma resolution which ultimately aligns with consequentialist theory and the seemingly favourable ethical framework. Was the resolution ethical? The colleague that made a poor decision without fully understanding the consequences of his actions is left in an extremely unfortunate situation. The organisation did continue to assist the colleague continue his apprenticeship studies as a non-paid employee which demonstrates an understanding of the ethical implications as a result of the resolution however; there is still an amount of resentment from the apprentice regarding the outcome. Ingram (2014) offers the opinion in defence of organisations being forced to make harsh decisions: ‘If you have made and implemented a decision with questionable ethical implications, act quickly to resolve the matter by making restitution to everyone affected and work to counteract the decision's effects’.

The primary resolution to terminate is closely correlated with deontological ethics as the action is impartial to the consequences of the decision. Deontological moral systems are such that their moral principles are completely separated from any consequences, in this case the result of an employee becoming unemployed for the results of an action that was not fully understood. Cline (2014) offers a criticism in regards to deontological theory that ‘deontological moral systems do not readily allow for grey areas where the morality of an action is questionable. They are, rather, systems which are based upon absolutes — absolute principles and absolute conclusions. In real life, however, moral questions more often involve grey areas than absolute black & white choices. We typically have conflicting duties, interests, and issues that make things difficult’.

Deontology teaches that an action is moral if it adheres to established rules however; these established rules are independent of any circumstantial influences. The fact that social media is a relatively new platform for bullying and harassment to present itself, so is the ‘grey’ in the matter in terms of applying deontological ethical theory for a resolution. This issue presents conflict between two categorical imperatives: duty to uphold justice against organisational policy and the duty and responsibilities as a friend. Deontology can be rationally justified in terms of morality however; in practice is problematic due to the rigidity of the theory and its inability to incorporate any variations relevant to the action.

Consequentialism on the other hand, allows for decisions to be made in appropriation with the consequences of the action. If a consequentialist ethical theory was applied to the issue, the best possible solution for all parties involved could be established. For instance, the victim of the issue may not have such mixed emotions regarding the harsh penalty and the implications of his friendship whilst the colleague could still maintain his employment whilst learning from his mistake. Virtue ethical theory teaches that internal moral character should guide behaviour regardless of the platform however; the fact that there is a disconnection between online behaviour and actual personal encounters presents an issue in the clarity of the issue.

The colleague believed that the online behaviour was in the context of humour however the interpretation was taken quite seriously. It can be argued that if this were a face to face encounter the behaviour would be significantly different and the fact that social media is a relatively new platform without an organisational policy that details the expectations of employee behaviour, there were no grounds to determine the severity of the ethical issue. From the victim’s point of view there is major conflict with the resolution as the original escalation was intended to avoid any damage to the friendship and actually separate the personal relationship from the work colleague relationship however; the impact of the escalation resulted in an extremely unfavourable outcome for both parties involved. In deontological context the resolution was straight forward though in consequentialist context the consequences were not ideal for any party involved.

Hartsell (2006) believes that the relationship between the parties involved in an ethical conflict is required to be taken into consideration for an effective resolution to be determined and goes on to state: ‘The nature of the relationship determines what is ethical, and the nature of the relationship may be properly determined only by open, voluntary negotiation. Openness involves honest disclosure of information, thoughts, and feelings about the issue at hand. Voluntariness involves the capacity to give or withhold consent for participation in the relationship and in the negotiation’. In contrast to the support of consequentialist theory Kokoski (2009) believes that: ‘Consequentiality – utilitarian ideology, which purports to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people, is insufficient for it operates from within a narrow landscape of particular instances and doesn’t consider – nor can it – how different situations are ultimately connected to each other in time or how they are understood in relation to the persons that help bring them about’. From this statement it can be argued that there is some benefit in the consideration for the greatest good for the greatest number of people however; it is insufficient in isolation as an ethical framework to base decision making on.

Kokoski (2009) concludes: ‘Consequentialism acknowledges moral values but maintains that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values’. Murdarasi (2009) believes consequentialism and deontology are the two most important ethical theories, but their ways of deciding what is right are very different and goes on to state: ‘The main criticism of deontology is that it is selfish, a way of avoiding getting your hands dirty (in a moral sense) while still allowing terrible things to happen. The main criticism of consequentialism is that it would allow any action in pursuit of a good cause, even actions that most people would say were clearly morally wrong, such as torture, killing children, genocide, etc.’. This statement argues the relevance for the consideration of multiple ethical theories in any resolution process and that one ethical theory in isolation will be insufficient as a framework for which to base any ideology.

Conclusion In summary, ethical dilemmas can be as complicated as the resolution process itself. A multitude of factors need to be considered before any effective resolution process can be handed down along with the consideration of secondary effects that a resolution process may have. Form the deontological point of view - what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong however; there are many factors that cloud this judgement. In this issue alone there is the consideration of the relationship between the two parties that needs to be considered in order to understand the context of the action so therefore; what is considered right and wrong could be a very fine line. In contrasting consequentialist theory - the action on social media was wrong however; the outcome of terminating one’s employment over what was actually considered to be a minor issue and the damage the resolution had on the friendship does not equate to the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

If either of the previously described resolution processes that align with consequentialist theory were followed then the outcome would have been far greater than what was actually delivered. The fact that social media is a relatively new platform definitely makes the issue a very complicated one and this particular issue demonstrates that the implications of social media on ethical conduct today are yet to be fully understood. Ultimately when there is significant uncertainty regarding an issue, then the consequences of any resolution need to be fully considered rather than adopting a virtuous deontological framework to work within.


Bartol, K., Tein, M., Matthews, G., Sharma, B., Scott-Ladd, B. (2011). Management: A Pacific Rim focus. (6th Ed).NSW: McGraw Hill. Behnke, S. (2005). On being an ethical psychologist. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from Billikopf, G. (2006). Employee Discipline & Termination. University of California. Retrieved from Brush, D. (2014). Cyberbullying - laws struggling to keep up with technology. CBP Lawyers. Retrieved from Caponecchia, C. (2012). Shining a new light on bullying risk. The Conversation. Retrieved from Cline, A. (2014). Deontology and Ethics: What is Deontology, Deontological Ethics? Retrieved from Cole, K. (2005). Management: Theory and practice. NSW: Pearson Education Australia. Edmond, C. (2013). Social media policies “critical” to workplaces. HC Online. Retrieved from Gowdy, L.N. (2013). Virtue Ethics. Larry Neal Gowdy. Retrieved from Greeson, W. (2011). When Good Men Do Nothing. David Padfield. Retrieved from Hartsell, B.D. (2006). A Model for Ethical Decision-Making: The Context of Ethics. Journal of Social Work Values & Ethics. Retrieved from Herboso, E. (2014). Plato's Beliefs on Ethics. Demand Media. Retrieved from Ingram, D.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Ethical Theory Frameworks in the Workplace. (2016, Aug 21). Retrieved from

Ethical Theory Frameworks in the Workplace essay
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