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.







Professor to manager & back:

How I spent my summer vacation(s)

I have been a Professor of Management for over 20 years and have conducted research on leadership and mentorship. I research the development of high quality working relationships which are essential for maximizing organizational effectiveness. I have taught undergraduate, MBA and PhD students at the University of Kentucky and the University of Miami Business Schools. For the past five years, I served as the Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Miami, managing both people and programs during a period of rapid organizational change. I realized that some of our theories of leadership and management work and others don’t. It was refreshing to learn that we really do know a lot about what works and doesn’t work for leaders. I also realized that much of what we know isn’t translated very well for practicing managers. I am back on the faculty now much wiser having been a managerial leader for five years. Through encouragement from a former MBA student (@IamJohnSparks) who is now a social media consultant based in Dallas, Texas, I decided to start tweeting about what I see as relevant and absolutely essential for a leader to know. I see myself as a curator of leadership and management thought. I now have over 1600  followers on twitter (@terriscandura) and more than 500 connections on LinkedIn ( and was honored to be listed this month as one of the most influential professors on leadership by the LDRLB (@LDRLB — pronounced leader lab — an online think tank that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy). My next step was to set up this website, where I can post links to resources you need as a leader including articles I come across and leadership assessment tools.  I will also be making blog posts like this one.
My interest in leadership started long before I started my Ph.D. program in organizational behavior at the University of Cincinnati School of Business Administration. During the summer months, a “bookmobile” would come to our neighborhood each week. They had a summer reading program in which we received a stamp for every book we read. I found a book about George Washington and become interested in what made him different – why did he have the courage to lead an army against what seemed to be a hopeless cause and prevail? What led to him being so trusted by people that they elected him to be their President? So I asked the librarian the next time for more books about leaders. She helped me pick out a book on Thomas Jefferson. That summer I read a lot books about leaders. I also remember reading books about Maria (Madam) Curie, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller. As I look at it now, I realize that I have a passion for learning about leadership that is marrow deep. I have published over two hundred book chapters, articles and conference papers – mostly on leadership and mentorship. I have taught thousands of students and disseminated information from my research and that of my colleagues in classes and at management and industrial/organizational psychology conferences. Through tweeting I realized that I could reach an even broader audience. I spent this past summer tweeting about leadership and management (as I spent another summer embarking on my lifelong journey by reading about leaders so many years ago). I have much to share with you and this blog will allow me to share more of my experiences and reflections on what leaders need to know in the challenging environments of change we now face.