Life is not easy, or fair. Employees are not always loyal, and won’t do the best thing for the company at all occasions. Actually we face temptation at work every day. A chance to date an attractive colleague, for example, though it may be only an unrealistic dream, especially when they are married. Or an opportunity to approve this or that contract, or choose a specific supplier, because it will pocket us a few extra thousands dollars.

There are many other dilemmas we can face. Should you opt for the less expensive way of doing something, though it is not environmentally friendly? Should you sell your client a certain product, which is good enough for them, though you know you could sell them a more expensive alternative, and make more money along the way, for both you and your employer?

Facing an ethical dilemma is something normal, something you cannot entirely avoid, unless you work as a lighthouse keeper. What matters to the interviewers is your attitude. How did you eventually decide? Did you do the right thing for you, for the company, for the environment? And what factors did you consider before making your decision? That’s why they ask you to provide an example when your ethics were tested.

Let’s have a look at 7 sample answers to this interesting interview question. I hope you will find at least one answer that resonates with your personality and experiences in my selection, one you can use in your interview. Enjoy!


7 sample answers to “Describe a time when you faced an ethical dilemma” interview question

  1. I faced a big one in my last job of a production manager. We were negotiating with several suppliers of clothes. One factory from Bangladesh gave us by far the best offer, and on paper they passed all environmental checks. But when our guys traveled there to inspect the production site, they found out that the company actually faked a lot of things, and polluted local rivers while producing clothing. Now, I could have said it didn’t matter. It was thousands of miles away after all, and they gave us the best offer, and they had the papers and certificates and everything. So it definitely was an ethical dilemma. But I eventually decided to reject them. What’s more, I reported them to local authorities. We chose another supplier. We paid more, our profit margin was tighter but we did not lie to our customers and did not participate on polluting the nature. I believe I made the right decision, though not everyone in the company would agree with that.
  2. Speaking honestly,my ethics were tested a lot in my last job. I knew that my manager was interested in me. They could get me a much better position in the company, or authorize a big raise. Just I had to go with them for a drink a few times. It was obvious and they made the offer several times. However, first and foremost, I knew it was not the right way up the career ladder, not the right thing to do. What’s more, they were married, so even from an ethical standpoint it was not correct to go with them… Hence I refused their offer repeatedly. Instead of promoting me, they decided to make it really difficult for me in work. Apparently they didn’t like losing, or maybe they weren’t used to getting refused. At the end of the day, I had to leave the company, and that’s why I am here today. But I would do the same thing again, because money is not the most important thing for me, and it never has been.

* Do not forget to check also: Full list of most common behavioral (describe a time when…) interview questions.

  1. This is my first job application, so I haven’t faced any ethical dilemmas at work yet. But I’ve faced them regularly during my studies… You know how it works with the exams. Someone knows the questions beforehand, and sometimes it is easy to cheat, because the professor doesn’t pay attention. I would lie to you if I said that I never cheated. But I eventually realized that it wasn’t ethically correct, and more importantly, that first and foremost I was cheating myself. I went to college to learn something. Getting the diploma was the goal, but the knowledge mattered for me more, and the connections with the community of students and teachers. Hence I decided to quit cheating, during my second year at the college. I managed to stick to my promise till the end of my studies.
  2. In my opinion, we face such dilemmas every day. And if we are responsible, and think about future generations as well, we should think about our daily decision. Take a typical shopping in a supermarket as an example. Will I drive there, or walk? Will I prefer local and environmentally friendly food, or will I opt for imported alternative, just because it costs less money? And how much will I buy? A lot, so we have a great selection back home, but eventually throw half of the food to rubbish, just like most US households? Or just enough, so maybe we can’t satisfy each carving of the stomach, but will end up eating and processing everything we bought? I try to think about these things, because I realize that each decision I make has an impact on the planet, and especially on the future generations. We shouldn’t be so selfish…
  3. Working as a purchasing agent, I faced many ethical dilemmas in my last job. You know how it works in this business, don’t you? A manager from one of the suppliers calls you and invites you for a private meeting. There’s an envelope on the table, or they make you a direct offer–you can get this and this if we win this competition. They do not always have to offer you money, but they will offer something. This is how it works, sad but true. But I never accepted such an offer, I kept my integrity. Maybe I was stupid, hard to say. Because if I accepted few of these offers I might have enough money today to not apply for jobs for the next ten years. But you cannot be someone you aren’t. I enjoy working, and I am not the kind of guy who would enjoy drinking champagne in a tropical resort for months on end… So I quit my job, and here I am, trying to start a new career with you.
  4. Actually I am here because of the last dilemma I faced–whether or not to stay with my present employer. When I graduated from pharmacy I was naive. I really thought that drugs help people, that pharmaceutical companies exist to help cure diseases and make the population healthier. I couldn’t be more wrong. They exist only to generate profit, lot of it. And to actually make the population sicker, or addicted to the drugs they produce, so they can make even more money each year. It is a vicious cycle, but I decided to quit the ride. Surely, they paid me well, and I have to start from scratch in a new field now. But money isn’t everything, and I could not live with myself if I stayed in the pharma business any longer.
  5. I faced such dilemmas each day with my last employer, and that’s exactly why I left them–because I was too weak, and I often fell for the temptation. And then I felt terrible. Let me explain it in more detail. I was selling insurance and retirement plans to clients. But we did not get the same commission from each provider. Actually one provider paid 50% more to the agents, and their product looked great on the paper. In reality, however, the clients paid a lot on hidden fees each year, and they eventually saved less money in a long run. But I still sold this plan to some clients, and I felt terrible afterwards… Here I am, honest and smarter than before, applying for a job with your company. I know that your agents get the same commission for each deal they close. I really like this payment model, because it motivates us to look for the best solution for the client, and not the one which is best for our pocket…


Ethical dilemma examples for students

If you face this question in a school admission interview, or should write as essay on the topic, as a part of an admission process, the pivotal thing remains the same: to show the right attitude, to explain your reasoning. You were tempted, no doubt, but you eventually did the right thing, or at least one you considered right. Or at least that’s what you should write or say :). To some good examples of ethical dilemmas for students belong:

  • Do I pick the major I love, or do I decide according to the eventual salary and career opportunities?
  • Will I help my classmate during an important exam, since I know how much it matters for them to pass, even if it entails cheating? Or will I, on the contrary, ignore them or even notify the teacher?
  • Do I try to stand out in a classroom, always having the best answer ready, or do I rather back up, giving some of other schoolmates the opportunity to stand out and shine?
  • Will I go to the party, to strengthen the camaraderie with my schoolmates, or will I rather skip it since it will impact my studies?

None of these situations is easy, but as long as you explain your reasoning on your essay (or in the interviews), the admission committee should be happy with your answer. Show them that you are a mature individual who sees pros and cons of their actions. You always try to do the right thing, though you may something do the wrong one–you’re still just a student at the end, trying to find your way in life…

Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Do not forget to check also the following posts, to make sure you get ready for your interview:

Matthew Chulaw
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