It’s not that companies do a poor job of educating employees about corporate codes of ethics and values. Almost everyone signs an agreement to uphold certain standards when they’re hired in a company. But how do you talk about core values at work – both your own and the company’s?

From what I see in my work coaching clients, the problem lies in getting people to speak up when they see questionable ethics and values being implemented. Nobody wants to stop a train in motion. There are a lot of good reasons not to be the one to interfere.

It can be extremely difficult to express your personal values at work, especially when confronted with questions of right vs. wrong. Issues become thornier when you’re facing a choice between degrees of right vs. right.

While research reveals universal values across cultures, not everyone agrees on what makes a worthy business decision that upholds values at work. We agree it should be:

  • Honest
  • Respectful
  • Responsible
  • Fair
  • Compassionate

Most of us want to bring our whole selves to work: our skills, ambitions and deeply held beliefs. We will inevitably encounter values conflicts during our careers, particularly when our goals and ideals clash with clients’, peers’, bosses’ and organizational expectations.

We have witnessed egregious managerial and financial misconduct during the first two decades of the 21st century. Employees at all levels assuredly observed ethical lapses, but found it hard to speak up and stop the foreseeable train wrecks. We can list plenty of examples, but none more outrageous than 2008’s financial implosions. Employees had to have known something was amiss, but they danced as long as the music played.

Attempts at preparing business leaders to act ethically often fail — not because they can’t distinguish right from wrong, but because they don’t know how to act on their values amid opposing pressures.

Many people believe blowing the whistle won’t do any good. And how can they effectively object without assuming personal risk?

Some of us also struggle with framing objections in a rational way, without assuming the role of “morals police.” We simply lack practice in holding values-based discussions.

I’m reading a good book about these issues, and will share some of what I’m learning in my next posts. The books is Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right by Mary C. Gentile (Yale University Press, 2010).

What has been your experience working with conflicts of values at work? I’d love to hear from you.