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Workplace Ethics Now

Jill Schaefer

Workplace Ethics Now

Doesn’t it seem like every other day stories about employees behaving badly show up in your newsfeed? Well, you’re not imagining it.

The most recent National Business Ethics Survey from the Ethics & Compliance Initiative indicates that 41% of U.S. workers have observed unethical behavior in the workplace!

What’s more, car sales representatives were ranked in a recent Gallup poll as having the lowest perceived ethics/honesty. (Those in the medical field, particularly nurses, pharmacists, and doctors, were ranked highest.)

Let’s not add any more fuel to the fire.

What’s unethical?
Most people know that lying, cheating, and stealing are unfavorable behaviors. However, ethical behaviors in the workplace may somehow seem more nuanced to employees. For example:

  • What if hourly employees willingly don’t clock in and out in order to get a large client order completed on time? (Hint: you need to pay employees for ALL of their work.)
  • What if a finance manager alters an invoice after clients first signed it, but before they received their final copy? (This warranted an ethics and legislation investigation.)
  • What if a new hire is making more than existing employees in the same position? (Equal pay for equal work and confidentiality come into play, but are different geographic regions involved too?)

As an employer, you can’t assume that your workers automatically know how to act ethically. They need proper training.

Ethics Definitions Text Box

How can managers enforce an ethical culture?
Unfortunately, managers perpetrate 6 out of every 10 instances of misconduct and 21% of employees who report the misconduct experience retribution. You can see the cauldron of legal problems brewing for organizations!

Above all, managers need to set the right example of desirable workplace behaviors that employees should emulate.

When an organization has a culture of unethical behavior from the top down and has not reinforced the importance of ethics, you will see an increase in problems across the board at all levels of the organization. Employees may rationalize what they see as “Everyone is doing it so I can too” or “That person didn’t get caught so why do I need to follow the rules?”.

Getting Managers to Lead by Example

  1. Train and document.
  2. Establish that actions speak louder than words and “do as I say, not as I do” won’t fly.
  3. Give employees a way to report ethical violations outside of the manager they report to.
  4. Treat any ethical reports seriously, respectfully, and confidentially.
  5. Promote a culture of caring for coworkers and managing resources effectively.
  6. Maintain strong policies and procedures, especially around business travel, in order to provide ample structure and direction for managers to follow.

Gauging Your Behavior
Here are some questions you and your employees can ask yourselves when trying to assess whether a work decision or practice is ethical. If you cannot answer “Yes,” to these questions, you likely need to reconsider your decision. 

  • What would I think if I saw that in the headlines?
  • Have you considered fairness and utilitarianism (most good, least harm to employees/clients)?
  • Is it against the law?
  • Does this decision represent a conflict of interest?
  • Does it fall within the acceptable standards of business or industry best practices?
  • Would you feel good explaining the decision you made to those you love the most?
  • Am I going against my personal values?
  • Am I misrepresenting information, hiding anything, or lying?
  • Does this action violate company policies?
  • Would it have a negative impact on you or the company if this got out?

 Still waffling? KPA’s clients who have access to our Ask an HR Expert hotline can get additional compliance assistance vetting ethical behavior in the workplace.

Additional Resource
Ethics in the Workplace: Have Employees Gone Completely Wild? KPA Webinar

Jill Schaefer

Jill Schaefer is KPA’s Director of Content Management. She is a writer at heart who has spent her career teaching and storytelling on important topics like safety, compliance, energy efficiency, healthcare, and education. Words, powerful graphics, and creativity motivate her. 

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