Are Ethical Dilemmas a Source of Stress?




Allmon and Grant (1990) conducted a study of reactions to violations of ethical codes of conduct from 47 “million dollar plus” real estate agents working in a major southeastern city. Their creative approach employed voice analysis in which the respondents were tape recorded and then their responses to questions about ethics violations were analyzed for stress in their voice. They found that 20% of the respondents exhibited stress when asked questions regarding ethics suggesting that they may have been violating ethical codes. Menzel (1996) defined ethics-induced stress as strain that “…may occur when an individual’s ethical outlook or standards differ significantly from the prevailing ethical ethos, environment, or standards of members of the organization in which she or he is employed” (p. 72). Menzel studied government employees and found that ethics stress was the result of pressure, workload and an emphasis on merit for advancement in the organization.

Research suggests that it is stressful for employees when they are asked to do something that they consider to be wrong or unethical.  A study of 304 customer service representatives conducted by Bischoff, DeTienne and Quick (1999) found ethics stress was related to burnout and fatigue. They asked respondents questions such as how much stress was due to “…having to sometimes stretch the truth in dealing with customers” and “…having to lie a little bit to satisfy customer objections” (p. 520). The ethical climate of the organization has been related to stress and turnover intentions as well (Mulki, Jaramillo & Locander, 2008). Raines (2000) conducted a nationwide study of 229 oncology nurses and found 80% of the nurses survey reported ethics stress as 6 or higher on a scale from 1 to 10. Thirty-two different ethical dilemmas were reported by the nurses in the study with pain management, cost containment and decisions in the best interest of the patient as the top three ethics-related stressors.

Research in a variety of different occupations suggests that ethics represents a significant source of stress for employees. Having a job that requires a person to do something that is at odds with their personal values or morals creates psychological strain and burnout. Ethics stress is yet another reason why organizations should adapt a proactive stance on ethics and avoid placing employees in ethics dilemmas.


Allmon, D. E., & Grant, J. (1990). Real estate sales agents and the code of ethics: A voice stress analysis. Journal of Business Ethics9(10), 807-812.

Bischoff, S. J., DeTienne, K. B., & Quick, B. (1998). Effects of ethics stress on employee burnout and fatigue: An empirical investigation. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration21(4), 512-532.

Menzel, D. C. (1996). Ethics stress in public organizations. Public Productivity & Management Review, 70-83.

Mulki, J. P., Jaramillo, J. F., & Locander, W. B. (2008). Effect of ethical climate on turnover intention: Linking attitudinal-and stress theory. Journal of Business Ethics78(4), 559-574.

Raines, M. L. (2000). Ethical decision making in nurses: relationships among moral reasoning, coping style, and ethics stress. JONA’S Healthcare Law, Ethics and Regulation2(1), 29-41.