Singapore Consultancy Pte. Ltd.

Conflict between work and personal values: How and where to draw the line?

Cart 0
Servicing needs through
Meaningful Engagement
Conflict between work and personal values: How and where to draw the line?
Conflict between work and personal values: How and where to draw the line?


Image by Sara Bizarro via

Picture the infamous trolley problem: A trolley barreling down a track, threatening to end the lives of five innocent people. Pulling a lever would divert the trolley onto an alternative track and kill one innocent person. Would you pull the lever?


As we navigate the corporate world, it is inevitable that we come across situations in our long careers where the right answer seems unclear. Whether it be budget cuts forcing us to choose which employee to retrench or a job offer where the benefits seem too good to be true, the dilemmas we face come in all shapes and sizes. These are all situations that beg careful deliberations. There are no clear-cut golden rules or universal truths that can be used to arbitrate every complex situation that arises. Very often, the corporate navigator has to rely on his inner compass and common sense to make the right judgment call, given the circumstances.


Recently, I had the opportunity to interview several members of Singapore Consultancy, who shared the philosophies and approaches they have adopted to resolve the ethical dilemmas in their careers. Hopefully, their experiences will act as a guide to anyone seeking help and make navigating life’s ethical problems slightly easier.


For Gracelyn Ho, she decided right at the start of her career to pick and work for financial institutions that have good core values and strong corporate cultures, with senior management setting the right tone from the top. She firmly believes in the Chinese saying – ‘Shang Liang Bu Zheng, Xia Liang Wai’ – if the upper beams of a building are not straight, the rest of the lower beams will be misaligned as well. Firms that emphasize good governance and doing the right thing, and consider them non-negotiable for the entire organisation, will find themselves in the right position in the long run. Not only will they keep the corporate environment safe and boost productivity, but they are also better placed to attract the right talent, create the right brand presence and gain the trust and confidence of their target audience as well as regulatory bodies. With such an environment, the probability of employees doing the wrong thing is severely curtailed. With such a mindset, she succeeded in outmaneuvering many ethical problems in her career, as the company’s expectations of her and her expectations of herself were in sync. As the adage goes, “Prevention is better than cure”, and this surely holds for ethical dilemmas as well.  


However, it is not possible to avoid every ethical dilemma. Some thought ought to be given to how to manage dilemmas as and when they arise. In the section below, Ms. Jacqueline Low, Mr. Malik Sarwar, and Mr. Daniel Teo elaborate on how they coped with these tricky situations.


When faced with ethical decisions, Jacqueline was uncompromising in prioritizing her personal values. During her career, she was required to make numerous complex decisions that directly impacted the company’s ability to earn revenue. However, Jacqueline decided to stand firm on her personal values, shutting down deals that seemed wrong. In one instance, she even decided to resign from her job as she could not in good faith condone the practices that were going on in the workplace. Despite the challenges she has faced, Jacqueline remains steadfast, stating that “It is never worth it to let go of your sense of right and wrong.”


On the other hand, Malik chooses to take a different approach. To him, an individual should “Be a bamboo, not an oak tree”, and approach his core values with some level of flexibility. An oak tree is strong and firm but breaks when strong winds blow against it. In comparison, a bamboo shoot also possesses great strength, but when strong winds blow against it, it bends instead of breaking, allowing it to return to its original (core) position after the winds have ceased. In the same way, when the issues appear as shades of grey, you must be willing to see the broader context and if it is for the greater good. If so, you may accommodate the situation, just like bamboo. Your judgment is key here, and Malik highly recommends seeking advice from more experienced professionals. However, if the action calls you to cross a red line, you must be able to stand your ground, and suffer whatever consequences may follow. But how do we know if an action crosses a red line? For Malik, an action crosses the red line if it violates your personal integrity. A CEO of Merrill Lynch taught him that Return on Integrity comes before Return on Investments and builds a sustainable business for all stakeholders.


Meanwhile, Daniel adopts a more structured approach, categorizing his personal values into several tiers. The first tier contains core values that are of utmost importance, such as integrity and honesty. The second tier contains work values, which contains values such as loyalty to the organisation, being dependable and efficient. The third tier contains leadership values, such as being approachable, authentic, leading by example, and having compassion. The last tier contains family values, such as being faithful to your wife and a good father to your children.


When managing conflicts, Daniel tries to find a solution that strikes a balance between different values, giving higher levels of precedence to values in the lower tiers. Special consideration is given to values in the first tier- they are non-negotiable, and therefore all actions must comply with them. Using this decision framework, Daniel manages to find the optimal solution for every situation. However, he emphasizes that the action must also be executed in a smart way. The correct choice, if executed poorly, can still lead to disastrous consequences.


But what if the decision is beyond your control? Suppose your company requires you to perform an action that crosses a moral boundary and makes it explicit that you do not have a say in the matter. In this situation, your decision should be highly contingent on if the action breaks the law. If it crosses a legal line, it is your duty to blow the whistle. Leverage on existing structures in the organisation that will safeguard your anonymity.  If the action does not cross a legal line, you should weigh the pros and cons of performing the required action. Ultimately, if you are pressured to act and do not have a choice, Mr. Peter Wee has some advice on how to mitigate the consequences. You can state in a carefully worded memo the concerns you have in carrying out the act. This way, you can make it clear to your superiors what your stance is on the issue.


I would also like to provide some words of wisdom that the consultants of Singapore Consultancy have for the younger generation. The first is the importance of integrity as a core value.  As Mr. Peter Wee says, “Unless you have integrity, everything that you do amounts to nothing”. The second is that choosing to give up your core values is a slippery slope. As Mr. Lennie Lim says, “Once you have shown to an unscrupulous person that you are willing to bend the rules, he will invite in all of his friends as well”. Therefore, choosing to hold to your values in one dilemma might limit the number of dilemmas you face in the future. The third is to always consider the long-term consequences of your decision. Frequently, bending your personal values does provide many benefits, making it seem like a wise decision. However, these decisions often have the potential to adversely impact you in the long run in ways that you cannot foresee.


In conclusion, in our careers, we will inevitably face many dilemmas. Nonetheless, if we plan ahead, remain flexible, and stay true to our personal values, we will have the means to weather any storm that life throws at us.

Posted by JOEL CHIA