Feeling guilty at work seems to be a problem for lots of people. Over the years as a workplace relationship consultant and mediator, I have discovered that guilt is often part of a more visible problem. This has to do with how we often need to compromise our values at work.

People don’t talk about it of course, not around the office, anyway. But in private – during of my conversations with them – it comes up as something that either holds people back or prevents them from putting themselves forward.

It isn’t great to be feeling guilty at work, but your conscience is telling you something.

Feeling guilty at work is entirely appropriate if you are robbing the pension fund, fiddling the petty cash, or stealing from your colleagues. It’s also right that you feel guilty if your employer is doing something harmful or illegal. After all, you represent your employer. Even though swindling or deceiving customers is often condoned in the corporate world, that doesn’t make it right.

But the sort of guilt I’m thinking about now isn’t like that; it’s more of a subliminal, pervasive feeling. Self-awareness is a cornerstone of personal development and wellbeing, but it can produce internal conflicts which we’d often prefer to ignore. If something about your job offends your personal values, well, it’s easier (and safer) to ignore it than to examine the feelings it generates.

Guilty conscience

A guilty conscience is a call to action. Guilt exists to make us examine our behaviour, so if you feel guilty about some aspect of your job, examine away! The good news is that, if you are feeling guilty at work, it follows you also have a conscience (otherwise you wouldn’t feel guilty), so if your examination comes up with the wrong sort of evidence, you might have to blow the whistle, leave your job, or both.

It can happen that you find yourself in a position where the demands of the job conflict with your personal values. For example, you are expected to defend a position you don’t sgree with, or seel a product you believe to be harmful. In cases like this feeling guilty my be a gnawing feeling, or you could wake up one morn=ing to the sudden realisation that you are in the wrong place!

No drama

A wake-up call doesn’t have to be dramatic though. Many years ago I met a woman who worked for an oil company (as they were called then). she’d got the job straight out of university, but a decade later she was struggling with her conscience. Way before it was cool to be green, during the time she’d been working for the company, she had become an eco-activist and radically altered her lifestyle, and her home, to fit with her values. Uneasy with the clash between her personal convictions and her professional demands, she was on the point of quitting her job, when she got wind of an opportunity.

The company she worked for, like many at the time, was setting up a department to focus on the environmental impact of its products and the development of clean energy sources. She saw a niche for herself. Rather than leaving the job, a sideways move meant that she could respect her values and keep her job.

Guilt and other signals that we are offending our own moral code can happen for much more subtle reasons. Economising with the truth, or telling customers a white lie, for example, might be the norm in some workplace cultures, but if you believe it to be wrong it will still gnaw away at you.

Feeling guilty at work

It isn’t great to be feeling guilty at work, but your conscience is telling you something. That’s why we have a conscience; it keeps us on a path which fits our beliefs and values. Pay attention to the message your heart is giving you. This may not be comfortable, and it can be difficult to live an ethical life and act in a way that you truly believe to be right, but the guilty feelings are there for a reason. Whether you decide to act on them or not is a choice for you alone.

If you are expected to say or do something in the course of your work which, deep down, you are uncomfortable with, try this. You can test these for low-grade deceits by asking yourself “Would I say or do this to my partner or my family?” Or, “How would I feel if someone did this to me/my child/or someone else I care about?”