Should You Leave a Job for Ethical Reasons?
We all want to feel good about where we work, and we want to believe that the organization adheres to the highest ethical standards. But what happens when you take a job that falls short of your expectations from an ethics perspective? And what should you do when what used to be a great environment becomes toxic and makes coming to work a distressing experience? Should you stay the course or dust off your resume and start looking for a new employer?
One Prominent Example of an Individual Leaving a Job for Ethical Reasons
Walter Shaub, the former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, faced an ethical dilemma that hit close to home. Shaub became dismayed at President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to divest from his business interests after taking office. He also clashed openly with many of Trump’s cabinet nominees over their financial conflicts of interest. These and other ethical concerns ultimately led to Shaub’s resignation in July 2017.
While your job probably won’t require you to battle with the president of the United States and his cabinet secretaries, an ethical dilemma can weigh heavily on your mind and make you contemplate your future. Shaub used a three-part mental checklist to guide his decision. He asked himself the following questions:
- Can I perform the mission effectively?
- Can I perform my job ethically and morally?
- Can I tell the truth?
Shaub still felt he was able to perform his job ethically and morally, and he certainly didn’t shy away from telling the truth as he saw it. However, because of the unresolved ethical issues surrounding his new boss, he no longer felt he could perform his mission effectively and had no choice but to leave the department in which he’d served for more than a decade.
Factors to Consider When Deciding Whether to Stay or Go
A similar checklist to the one developed by Walter Shaub can guide you when facing the difficult decision of whether to leave a job due to ethical concerns. You should also consider the following factors:
- What can I do to improve the situation?: Think about the steps you can take that might make your circumstances easier to deal with. Sometimes, talking to a supervisor or a trusted colleague can give you a new perspective — and even make you see the potential benefits of the situation.A human resources manager can also provide some useful insight. If things still look hopeless, it’s probably a good time to leave.
- Is it temporary or permanent?: Consider whether your ethical dilemma is more likely to be short-term or long-term in nature. If you’re otherwise happy with your job and your organization, the best option might be to wait a while to see if things get better.
- Can you still have pride in yourself and your work?: If you feel embarrassed to tell people about your work, or you feel ashamed when you walk through the door each morning, you should strongly consider making a change.
- Are you being asked to violate your moral principles?: If you’re asked to engage in an activity or perform a task that you view as unethical or immoral, you can try explaining your objections to your supervisor. If he or she is unable or unwilling to see things your way, you may need to resign rather than compromise your principles.
- Is the situation damaging your relationships with coworkers and supervisors?: If things have reached the point that you’re in a toxic work environment where you can’t trust your colleagues or your boss, it will be hard to perform your job well and feel good about where you work. If transferring to a new department isn’t a viable option, your only recourse may be to seek new employment opportunities.
How to Handle the Interview Process If You Decide to Leave
If you ultimately decide that quitting is in your best interests and you initiate a job search, be prepared for the inevitable “Why did you leave your last position?” question during interviews. Flatly stating that you quit for ethical reasons isn’t necessarily the best approach.
As John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas explains, “The trouble is that anyone who wasn’t there and didn’t see what you saw will have no way of knowing whether your accusations are true, or whether you’re just a troublemaker,” Challenger says. “Prospective employers will worry that you might make them look bad someday, too.”
Answering with tact can make a more favorable impression on hiring managers. For example, you can state that you left due to philosophical differences. If the interviewer presses you for more details, simply explain that you can’t because you don’t want to reveal any proprietary information.
Also, you don’t want to find yourself in the same situation as with your previous employer. View the interview process as a two-way street. Don’t accept a position unless you feel confident that the organization has high ethical standards.