An ethical dilemma within the workplace can involve any number of possible scenarios. Let's address, for the purpose of discussion, a common problem that confronts many individuals in many different types of work. That problem involves observing, or hearing through second- or third-parties, that a coworker has stolen from the company. Stealing from one's employer constitutes a relatively common transgression, especially in cash-intensive businesses like restaurants or gasoline service stations. At some point, some employee is going to steal from the company. It could be cash, or it could be merchandise or office equipment, but somebody is going to feel that it's okay to take company property home for his or her own use. The dilemma arises when you become aware of that illicit activity and, consequently, must decide how to respond. A bond between coworkers might exist that precludes you from reporting to your superiors or to Human Resources that you are aware of theft by a fellow employee. You may not know or even like the coworker, but reject the notion of informing on another individual (i.e., becoming a "rat"). You might, therefore, decide to ignore the transgression. Conversely, you might feel it is your responsibility to report the transgression up your chain of command, or to a Human Resources office.
Let's say for the purpose of discussion that a decision is made to report a theft of company property to the Human Resources office. Officials in that office will take a report and, typically, summon the accused individual for an interview, at which time that individual will be informed that he or she was observed stealing. If physical evidence of a crime is absent, and assuming that a polygraph examination is not an option, the H.R. official may have no choice other than to let the accused individual return to his or her job, that individual now aware that a fellow worker has made an accusation against him or her. If, however, evidence of the alleged misconduct does exist, then the Human Resources office may issue a warning to the offending worker, or may terminate that worker's employment status.
When interviewing for a position, this educator was asked by prospective employers how I would respond to a situation in which I observed a coworker stealing from the company. I responded that I couldn't give a concrete answer, as my moral obligation might involve multiple variables, including the option of confronting that coworker myself to discuss the issue or, possibly, ignoring the matter altogether. My prospective employer accepted my response, as it demonstrated a willingness to deal with a personnel matter personally rather than involving superiors or Human Resources while acknowledging that life can be more complicated than the simple black-and-white scenarios might suggest. In such a scenario, reporting the matter to H.R., the appropriate reaction according to company policy, was not necessarily the "real-life" option that may be selected by an honest, diligent employee.
Human Resources offices have a number of options at their disposal for resolving moral or ethical dilemmas or issues. They can reissue copies of the company's principles and expectations of employees as a reminder to all that certain types of conduct are not tolerated. They can terminate the employment of the offending individual, or they can issue a warning, perhaps including placing a memo or letter or reproach in that individual's personnel file. Or, they can do nothing. Observing a coworker lose his or her job because you informed Human Resources officials of that coworker's transgression is not pleasant. You have no control over how H.R. will respond to reports of misconduct. Each individual must decide for his- or herself how to respond to information or observations incriminating fellow human beings.