How to answer "Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult ethical decision?" (with sample answers)

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This post is part of our series on behavioral interview questions.

Why employers ask this

Employers use this question to determine how you behave in difficult situations and to evaluate your decision-making process. They want to know your values and ethics and how you apply them to real-world scenarios. Hiring managers also look for indications of your leadership skills and your ability to solve problems in a fair and ethical manner. Additionally, your response to this question is an indicator of your character, professional responsibility, and integrity.

Responding effectively to this question demonstrates your willingness to confront ethical dilemmas head-on and take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. Employers want team members who can maintain high ethical standards, work together collaboratively, and help the organization achieve its goals while ensuring that the right and fair thing is always done.

How to answer the question

To answer this question, you need to provide an example of a situation where you faced an ethical challenge in the workplace. Be honest and transparent about what happened, the options you had, and the decision you made. Describe the thought process and reasoning behind the decision and explain how you came to your conclusion. You should also explain how your actions aligned with your values and the organizational ethics policy.

When answering this question, do not apologize for your decision. Instead, explain why you felt it was the right thing to do. If conflicting values or priorities influenced your decision, be sure to mention them and explain how you resolved them. Finally, after narrating the situation, describe the results of your decision and the lesson you learned from the experience.

In conclusion, your response should demonstrate your ethical reasoning, your commitment to doing the right thing, and your ability to resolve ethical dilemmas under stress.

Sample answers

Answer 1: The bad answer

I've never really been faced with a difficult ethical decision.

Why it's a bad answer: This answer communicates to the interviewer that the candidate lacks experience or has not reflected enough on their past experiences. Additionally, it fails to answer the question, putting the candidate in a negative light.

Answer 2: The okay answer

One time, I had to decide whether to report a coworker who was stealing office supplies. In the end, I decided to report them.

Why it's an okay answer: This answer demonstrates some experience with making ethical decisions, but lacks detail and doesn't fully explain the thought process behind the decision. It also highlights potentially negative traits such as lack of trust toward coworkers.

Answer 3: The good answer

During my time as a project manager, I found out that one of my team members was purposely giving incorrect information to the client in order to make our project look more successful than it actually was. I knew that it was unethical and if we were caught, it would harm our company's reputation. I had a conversation with the team member in question, telling them that I knew what they were doing and that they needed to come clean with the client and make things right. We ended up losing the project, but I knew that I had made the right decision for our company and our reputation.

Why it's a good answer: This answer not only shares a difficult ethical decision but also demonstrates how the candidate addressed the situation with the team member involved. It showcases the candidate's leadership skills, integrity, and ability to prioritize the company's reputation over personal gain.

Answer 4: The excellent answer

During my time at a retail store, I noticed a customer being overcharged for an item. The cashier refused to remedy the situation, so I stepped in and gave the customer a refund for the overcharge. Later, I brought up the incident with the cashier's supervisor, explaining the situation and insisting that the issue be resolved. I also proposed a training course for the whole staff on ethical procedures. I believe that it's important to ensure that every customer is treated fairly and with honesty, and it's an obligation of the company and its workers to achieve that.

Why it's an excellent answer: This answer demonstrates not only the ability to recognize and correct an ethical issue, but also the initiative to propose a solution to the issue. It highlights both the candidate's integrity and leadership potential in the workplace.

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