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Posted: August 11, 2009

Right, wrong and the torment of a bad choice

The special circumstances of moral and ethical questions in business

Kathleen Quinn Votaw

A recruiter’s client was so excited about two candidates that they had a difficult time making a choice. They finally decided that they wanted to hire both candidates. The problem was that this company couldn’t afford to pay two commissions, causing a moral dilemma for the recruiter.

Recruiters make their living from commissions, and many operate on the premise that, “If you don’t pay me, you can’t hire that person.” Fair compensation for a job well done, in other words.

Should a client’s inability to pay a second commission stand in the way of an earnest candidate getting an ideal job, especially in this economy? Or is allowing the company to hire a candidate without paying a commission setting a precedent that could harm not only the recruiter, but also the industry? What’s the “right” thing to do?

You may have guessed that the recruiter was me. My dilemma set me thinking about the special circumstances of moral and ethical questions in business, as opposed to the more spiritually oriented quandaries we deal with on the personal side of life. New York’s Center for International Leadership president, Zygmunt Nagorski, says of moral challenges in business: “Material rewards are swift and sometimes enormous in our society. Their dark side is not a potential social punishment. It is simply contending with an inner torment.”

When you’re in a moral business dilemma, the question is: Can you live with the internal torment of making a choice that is, on some level, wrong?

Moral dilemmas make for lonely decisions
Moral dilemmas in businesses somehow seem less than black and white. They force you to make choices in one of two contexts: trying not to do harm, or doing or leaving undone something that is good. Often, you’re choosing between two actions that can both be justified, as in my dilemma. Other moral dilemmas that come to mind are:

  • You just took a job and a better one came along, should you sacrifice your professional growth to stand by your commitment?
  • Is the social responsibility of business to increase profits, as Milton Friedman said, in which case you’d put shareholders first in every case? Or, should your business have a social conscience as well?
  • What should you allow into your products? Is it okay to use materials that you know have some toxicity? How do you balance profits with the environment and with safety?
  • Should you sacrifice jobs to save the company?
  • Should you drive a mortal blow into the heart of your competitor if you can, or does concern over the hurt you’d cause to those employees weigh in?
  • If you’re doing business globally, how much do you compromise your services to the demands of a foreign country, as many see Yahoo and Google having done in China?
  • How do you decide when the ends justify the means?

Making these kinds of decisions can be lonely indeed, and the test is always whether you’re able to live with yourself after making your choice.

Getting to the “right” choice
There a few ways you can help yourself get to the right personal decision – one that won’t torment you for months or even years.

Get prepared
Many business schools offer and even require courses in business ethics, and ethics are included in many leadership programs. These courses create awareness of the types of ethical issues you may face in business and many add analytical and reasoning skills training. Take advantage of these courses.

Ask others
Seek out a mentor whose ethics you respect and ask their advice. Or, initiate dialogues with diverse people to gain various perspectives on a particular dilemma.

Test yourself
As you make your choice, ask yourself these questions:

Will I be guilt free if I make this choice? Can I live with this choice?
If my decision involved my family or close friends would I make the same choice?
Would it be okay if someone made the same choice and it affected me?
Would an ethical person I respect make the same choice?

Over time, you’ll become conscious of the decisions and choices you make and understand what living with your choice will mean to you. This, more than anything, will help resolve moral dilemmas.

As for my own dilemma, we’re working on a solution that all can live with – torment free.

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of Golden-based TalenTrust, a Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) firm that helps companies accelerate their growth by hiring exceptional talent. Kathleen is president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x5.


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Readers Respond

I would have taken the commission for the first candidate. Then, since the company can "pay" the salary of the second candidate, have them pay the commission over time for the second candidate. So, if the commission was 25% of $100K, have them pay $500/week for a year. This spreads the commission over time, so the company can pay it. It is extra pay for the recruiter for doing no significant extra work. The company gets their second good candidate. A win-win for everyone. By Thomas Green on 2009 08 11
I would love to hear the outcome of this moral dilemma and how you resolved it with your client. Being in a similar business this is a good example of the types of decisions that clients ask us to make all the time. Reduce your fees, change the terms of your contract, reduce rates in the middle of an assignment, I already received his resume, and the list goes on. All legitimate requests and perhaps needs on the part of clients, but they can sometimes seem one sided and unfair. Balancing those needs is the type of thing that can keep you awake at night. By Paul Navin on 2009 08 11
Kathleen, good article. 63% of the working population are in jobs that don't fit them! In my experience when you use qualified assessment products, these situations are less stressful. While these tools are not decision-makers, qualified tools provide insight into what you'll need to do to hire the right person. There are many people able to sell themselves; however, unable to sell your product or service. Some don't have the ethics; some don't have the sales personality; and some simply don't have the authentic interest. By Jeannette Seibly on 2009 08 11

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