Ethical Concerns and Dilemmas in Government and Private Institutions

Last updated: June 2023 (Ethical Concerns and Dilemmas in Government and Private Institutions)

Ethical Concerns and Dilemmas in Government and Private Institutions

This article deals with a topic titled ‘ Ethical Concerns and Dilemmas in Government and Private Institutions .’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’. For more articles, you can click here.

Ethical Concerns in Public Office

Ethical Principles that should be followed in Public Office

It is important to have a look at the ethical principles that should be followed in Public Office, as they will act as guiding forces in resolving the dilemmas in public office

  1. Legality: Legality refers to whether an action is permitted or prohibited by law. Public officials have a duty to follow the law and to ensure that their actions are legal.
  2. Rationality: The concept of rationality pertains to the capacity to think logically and arrive at sound conclusions grounded in factual information and evidence.
  3. Utilitarianism: While making policies and decisions, an administrator should ensure the greatest good (happiness, benefits) of the greatest number.
  4. Accountability: Accountability is the answerability of the public official for his actions. 
  5. Work Commitment: Public officials should work with full commitment to achieve the goals set by the constitution, laws and government. 
  6. Responsiveness: Respond effectively to demands & challenges from outside and within the organization. 
  7. Compassion towards weaker & vulnerable sections
  8. National Interest 
  9. Maintain Transparency
  10. Ensure Integrity

Ethical Concerns in Public Office

Ethical Concerns and Dilemmas in Government and Private Institutions

1. Administrative Discretion

  • Within the rules and regulations laid down by legislation and within the prescribed procedures, there is ample opportunity for the public official to use his discretion. 
  • The problem is that selecting one path of action from among several alternatives is often made based on personal preference, political or other affiliations, or even personal aggrandizement. 

2. Corruption 

  • According to World Bank, Corruption is the use of public authority for private gain
  • Corruption can take many forms, including bribery, red-tapism, embezzlement, nepotism, and favouritism.
  • Corruption can lead to the violation of public trust, distorts the allocation of public resources and undermines national growth.

3. Administrative Secrecy 

  • Administrative Secrecy involves withholding information from the public to protect national security or the privacy rights of individuals. 
  • Although Administrative Secrecy can be necessary in certain situations, it can provide an opportunity to cover up unethical conduct and promote corruption.  

4. Nepotism 

  • Nepotism is the practice of showing favouritism towards one’s relatives and friends, thereby ignoring the merit principle and equal opportunity.  

5. Information Leaks 

  • Leaking official information at a date prior to the public announcement. Such disclosure of the information can lead to chaos, corrupt practices or improper monetary gains. 
  •  The leakage of confidential data can jeopardize national security or harm individuals and organizations. 
  • Such leaks can undermine public trust in government institutions as government acts as the custodian of data in a fiduciary capacity.

6. Other Concerns

  • Abuse of sick leave privileges
  • Extended tea breaks 
  • Violation of office rules in general.

Reasons for Unethical Behaviour of Public Servants

1. Historical Context

  • Colonial Legacy => Independent India inherited the same Bureaucratic Structure. During British rule, the bureaucracy was primarily focused on controlling the Indian population and looting resources.

2. Social Context

  • Indian society has accepted corruption and doesn’t view it negatively. It is not a social taboo anymore. 

3. Legal-Judicial Context

  • Wrt Public Services, laws made during the British time are still applicable in India. However, they had nothing in them to guide Civil Servants wrt Ethical Concerns. E.g., Indian Police Act, 1861.

4. Political Context

  • Criminalization of Politics: Due to the entry of criminals into the Indian political system, unethical Public Servants serve as their natural allies.  

5. Organizational Aspect

  • Due to the massive expansion of Indian bureaucracy, it is extremely difficult for the political executive to control it.  

6. Excessive Security

  • Excessive security, which has been provided in Acts like the Prevention of Corruption Act and Article 311 of the Constitution etc., is misused by corrupt and unethical civil servants.

Ethical Concerns in Private Sector Institutions

Ethics in private institutions refers to the ethical principles governing business activities. Business ethics is the predominant source of guidance in Private Business institutions. The ​philosophy may vary from organization to organization; however, fundamentals remain the ​same.

Ethical Concerns in Private Sector Institutions, in general, are

  1. Favouritism, Nepotism and Partisanship: Conflict of interest in appointments, especially in ​family-run companies, like the appointment of relatives to positions such as the board of directors
  2. Integrity of the Audit Process: Companies have been found to fudge their balance sheets: E.g., Satyam Case, DHFL case etc.
  3. Insider Trading and manipulation of share prices
  4. Cartelization: Big Corporations in oligopolistic markets form cartels to set the buying or selling price and make the entry of new players impossible.
  5. Lobbying with the governments for favourable policies like subsidies, tax reductions, contracts etc.

Ethical Concerns wrt Employees 

  • Moonlighting: It is the process of working for multiple organizations. Ethically, an employee shouldn’t work in more than one place simultaneously (in 2022, Wipro, Infosys, etc., removed workers due to moonlighting because such workers may disclose the parent company’s trade secrets or client list to other rival companies.)
  • Taking credit for others’ work: Employees often work in teams to create marketing campaigns, develop new products or fine-tune services, yet rarely does everyone in a group contribute equally to the final product. If all employees accept equal praise even though only a select few did the real work, it is wrong. Team members should insist that all employees perform specific tasks to help complete a project. 
  • Harassing co-workers (physically, psychologically or sexually): Employees often don’t know what to do if they see one of their co-workers harassing another employee either mentally, sexually or physically. Employees may worry about their jobs if they attempt to report a superior for harassment. The best way to resolve this ethical dilemma rests with the staff members who develop the company’s employee handbook. It is their job to include specific language that spells out that an employee won’t be punished for reporting the harassing behaviour or inappropriate actions of their co-workers.
  • Failing to maintain the company’s privacy policy: An employee shouldn’t give the company’s data to another company/competitor.
  • Offensive Communications: Employees shouldn’t use offensive language in the office.  
  • Other Issue
    • Utilization of organizational resources to fulfil personal needs is unethical. E.g., Making unnecessary phone calls at the company’s cost.
    • Using office hours for private work
    • Taking advantage of the travel benefit.  
    • Taking excessive leaves beyond the allowed number 

Ethical Concerns wrt Employers

  • Favouritism: Employers shouldn’t favour a particular person with regard to promotions and bonuses  
  • Sexual harassment at the workplace
  • Unnecessary delay in paying the employee’s provident fund and gratuity  
  • Hire and fire culture, i.e. firing the employees on frivolous grounds for budget management or reducing expenses. 
  • Gender Neutrality: Some organizations favour men over women due to issues like maternity leaves and other gender-associated prejudices.

Discipline generally implies following the order and subordination. However, it may be counter-productive for the organisation. Discuss. (UPSC 2017)

  • First, mention that discipline is important as it brings efficiency and helps in maintaining ethical behaviour within the organization. 
  • But too much emphasis on discipline in the form of order and subordination can be counterproductive.
    • It kills innovation. E.g. companies like Tesla give space and freedom to think beyond ordinary lines, and this has made them leaders in innovation.
    • It creates an army of sycophants, and the decision-makers of the company can’t get the real picture. 
    • Indian companies rely too much on discipline, so they have become just outsourcing destinations for Western companies. We are not able to create Indian Facebook or Google even though Indians are heading many Innovation powerhouses of the world.

Dilemmas in Public and Private Institutions

It is easy to make a  choice among actions where consequences are unambiguously right or wrong. However, an ethical dilemma arises when there is ambiguity about the goodness or badness of an act.

Ethical dilemmas or moral dilemmas  are situations in which

  1. There is a choice to be made between two or more options, neither of which resolves the situation fully
  2. There is a mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.

Reasons for Dilemmas

  1. Conflict of interest is the most obvious example leading to an ethical dilemma. Conflicts of interest can arise when there is a clash between an individual’s private interests and their public responsibilities, creating a dilemma for the public official or employee.
  2. Conflict between different values of Public Administration (Value 1 vs Value 2): For example, Value 1 might be the protection of individual privacy, while Value 2 might be the need for law enforcement agencies to access private data to prevent crime. Other examples include transparency versus confidentiality, efficiency versus due process, and economic growth versus environmental protection.
  3. Conflict between different aspects of the Code of Conduct: For example, a public official may be required to maintain confidentiality about certain information in order to protect the public interest, but they may also have a duty to be transparent and accountable to the public.
  4. Personal values vs government directives:  a public servant may have personal values that conflict with a government directive, such as a policy that prioritizes economic development over environmental concerns. 
  5. Professional Ethics vs Government Directive: Professional ethics are a set of standards that guide the conduct of individuals in a particular profession. They are intended to ensure that professionals act in the best interests of their clients, patients, or stakeholders. When professional ethics conflict with government directives, public officials may face a dilemma. They may feel that following government directives would compromise their professional integrity, or that following their professional ethics would conflict with their obligations to the government. 
  6. Blurred or Competing accountabilities: Public officials have multiple stakeholders to whom they are accountable, including society, government, superiors, media etc. Each of these stakeholders may have different expectations and priorities, making it challenging for public officials to balance their obligations. 

Types of Ethical Dilemmas

1. Personal Cost Ethical Dilemmas 

  • Arises from situations when compliance with Ethical Conduct results in a significant personal cost to the decision maker 
  • These are easy to solve (at least in the case of studies) because one option is definitely incorrect, although if we go with the other option, we have to pay a personal cost. 
  • These personal costs include jeopardising held positions, missing opportunities for material or financial benefit, and injuring valued relationships. 

2. Right vs Right Ethical Dilemmas 

  • Arises from situations of two or more conflicting sets of bona fide ethical values 
  • E.g., 
    1. Transparency vs Secrecy: Public Servant’s responsibility of being open and accountable to citizens versus that of adhering to the oath of secrecy/confidentiality 
    2. Justice vs Mercy: A public official may have to make a decision between enforcing the law strictly and punishing a wrongdoer or showing mercy and granting leniency to the wrongdoer in light of extenuating circumstances.

3. Conjoint Ethical Dilemmas 

  • In this public servant finds himself in a situation that is a combination of the above-indicated ethical dilemmas, i.e. problem consists of both Right vs Right & Personal Cost Ethical Dilemmas. 

Note – In solving the case study of Ethical Dilemmas, in the introduction, one can mention in which category this case study comes out of above mentioned Ethical Dilemmas. 

Principles to be used in Solving Dilemmas

  1. Objective Analysis: To solve dilemmas, one should always act objectively based on rational thinking & facts and figures. 
  2. Follow the Rule of Law: Act should always be within the rules of law. Hence, if competing choices are such that one is within the ambit of the law and the other outside law, then one must go with the law. 
  3. Follow Code of Conduct: Always follow the Code of Conduct in such cases because the main aim of giving an exhaustive Code of Conduct is to resolve these situations in the best way. 
  4. Society above Personal Interest: In solving these dilemmas, one should place society and nation above personal interests
  5. Choose the higher value among competing values: In case the dilemma involves competing values, choose the higher value. E.g. Openness is a higher value than secrecy (unless the Security and Integrity of the nation are at stake) 
  6. Use Gandhi’s Talisman 
  7. Use Conscience: But conscience is not always correct and often leads us in the wrong ways. 

Acts of Double Effect

Some actions have two effects—good and bad. How does someone decide the morality of such actions? Ethicists provide a few general principles to help decide the morality of acts of double effect. According to these principles, it may be morally permissible to perform an action that has both good and bad consequences if certain conditions are met. They are:

  1. The action itself must be either good or neutral— that is, not intrinsically wrong. 
  2. The good effect must be immediate—that is, not obtained through the evil effect. 
  3. The intention or purpose must be good.
  4. There must be a proportionately good reason or cause for performing the action in the first place.

This marks the end of our article on Ethical Concerns and Dilemmas in Government and Private Institutions.

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