Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4 Three approaches to reading an ethical dilemma

In the following activity you will read a case study of a typical ethical dilemma and three separate ways of thinking about the case will be presented. Each of these approaches suggests a way that you and your leadership team might read and discuss an ethical dilemma.

Activity _unit5.4.1 Activity 3 Approaching an ethical dilemma

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Read the case study below.

Case study _unit5.4.1 Case study 1

You are the chief executive of a small charity dedicated to alleviating poverty within a multicultural inner city environment. Your approach is two-pronged. Your primary focus is on helping people be work-ready via the provision of training and peer support. Your secondary focus is the alleviation of short-term problems, such as a lack of food or transport: some stop-gap measures you can take yourself, but in other cases you are able to refer clients to other charitable organisations. You have spent a significant amount of time and energy cultivating positive relationships with other highly competent local organisations, as well as public sector organisations, such as the local council, the police force and health services.

You employ a staff of 19 people (excluding yourself), 16 of whom are hands-on case workers. You employ two administrators (one of whom also helps you with finance). One of your case workers dedicates a third of his time to helping you with human resource management.

Unfortunately, times have been lean. Around three years ago you made the decision to change the strategy of the charity to focus more on pursuing public money. However, a recent bid for a major council contract was lost, with a large national charity winning the bid. In the meantime you have also lost touch with many of your previous donors. The prospects for financing the charity once more via donations, at least in the short term, are slim to none. The local authority, however, has offered you a short-term bridging grant for 12 months. You note that accepting the grant is likely to involve some very difficult decisions, particularly in relation to the number of staff employed.

Scanning your organisation, you know that most of these staff members will manage quite well elsewhere. They are skilled and experienced practitioners who could pursue alternative careers either for a local authority or even delivering the newly won contract on behalf of the large national charity. You worry, however, about three of your staff in particular. While they are effective case workers, they used to be quite vulnerable clients themselves. They would be likely to struggle to find similar work elsewhere. Nevertheless, were you to cut the staff numbers demanded, these three case workers, on a purely rational basis, would have to be made redundant, as you judge that they would not possess as many necessary skills as others in re-establishing the charity as a viable organisation.

On the other hand, the three case workers in question hold symbolic value, as former clients who have managed to achieve steady, well-paid work. They are often described as the ‘heart and soul’ of the organisation, as ‘reminders of why we exist’. You fear that making them redundant could have a large impact on their wellbeing but also on the credibility and morale of the organisation.

How would you approach this problem? Jot down some notes in the box provided.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


In reality, we hope that you would convene your team and discuss the options in a great deal of depth. You will now go on to read some ways of thinking about the problem that are also dominant approaches to organisational ethics.

Drawing on the most common approaches, there are a number of ways in which you could think through this problem.

  1. You could decide to prioritise the outcome of any decision as the most important consideration. Drawing up a cost/benefit analysis would be a good start. This would help you come to a reasoned conclusion because whichever option resulted in the greatest number of people being helped out of poverty ought to be the one you follow. Of course this approach requires the gathering of significant amounts of reliable evidence. It also means that you have to be prepared to accept that your organisation might not be best positioned to help the largest number of people – perhaps the most ethical thing to do would be to wind down the charity.

    That said, this approach does overlook the matter of your three vulnerable members of staff. You might want to consider the possibility that no decision that causes harm to these people is worth it, as that would inevitably be using them as a means to an end. Would you be happy applying these ethical standards to any decision you made in the future? Would you be content yourself to be made unemployed in order to serve a greater good?

  2. You could reflect on your own moral judgment. What is your guiding ideological stance and does it provide you with answers on a way through this situation? Your commitments as, for example, a socialist, liberal and so on should provide you with a basic compass to guide decision making. That said, nobody trusts a superficial and narrow ideologue – so your reflections would need to be sufficiently self-critical.

  3. Finally, you could trust your own judgment as a mature and well developed ethical practitioner – or at least trust the judgment of others. You might take the view that regardless of the demands of various perspectives, you (or someone else) has the correct balance of experience and ethical sense to make a wise judgment call.

    In practice of course, sophisticated ethical practitioners would not pursue one of these approaches in isolation but would consider a problem from many different angles. There are no completely satisfactory final answers to ethical dilemmas – this is their nature. Bearing this in mind, you will now consider the role of engaged leadership in working within ethical dilemmas, as opposed to leadership in order to solve ethical dilemmas.