Ethics, broadly defined, is the moral guidelines that a company follows to both comply with laws, but also expectations and standards of behavior that stakeholders, partners, customers and the community in general would find acceptable.While most people have a set of personal ethics that drive their behavior, for example their approach to how they conduct their friendships, treat their families and carry out romantic relationships, workplace ethics are the essentially moral standards that shape a person’s conduct in their workplace.
According to 2018 Global Benchmark on Workplace Ethics, one in five employees feels pressure to compromise standards. Globally. Around 33% of employees said they had personally witnessed misconduct in the workplace in the past 12 months.
Another study by Walker International found that just 59% of working adults in the United States thought their organization is highly ethical overall.
Unethical behavior can range in its consequences from being outright illegal and resulting in criminal charges against individuals and/or the company involved, through to consumer boycott, lost revenue, falling stock prices and at the extreme end, the collapse of the entire company.
Examples of good ethics in the workplace
Many companies have corporate values statements that highlight to employees and the wider community what the company stands for. Good ethics in the workplace are an expansion on this.
Ethics may vary depending on the occupation or industry of your employees. In the healthcare sector, for example, doctors and nurses will have a different set of ethics to lawyers, police or accountants.
In general, however, these are considered to be good ethics:
- Acting with integrity
Many customers have their own standards and expectations when it comes to ethics and companies, particularly around concerns such as slavery, treatment of workers, corruption and whether the company is contributing to climate change.
For example, they may seek out clothing or coffee that has been manufactured by a company that understands its supply chain and can guarantee that the product has been both produced in a sustainable way, but also by workers who are paid a living wage.
Recent years have seen companies forced to change many aspects of their business such as using single-use plastic straws or plastic bags and packaging that can’t be recycled as customers concerned about climate change push back against this.
Examples of unethical behavior in the workplace
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, unethical practices have brought about more than half of the biggest bankruptcies in the world over the past 30 years. Headline grabbing collapses of companies such as WorldCom. Lehman Brothers and Enron are included in this and cost the economy an estimated $1.228 trillion.
Common ethical dilemmas in workplaces include:
- Unethical misconduct by leadership – for example when the CEO or other senior managers is able to spend money inappropriately, take bribes, bully or harass subordinates or direct employees to act unlawfully or unethically.
- Discrimination and harassment – as we’ve seen with the global #metoo movement, sexual harassment and assault and sexual discrimination in the workplace has been brought to the fore as a major issue for many industries. Other types of discrimination can include disability, race, religion and sexual preference.
- Poor workplace culture – the saying a “fish rots from the head down” can apply to many companies where poor leadership results in a toxic workplace culture where bullying, fraud and other unethical behaviors are rife.
- Fraud – fraud doesn’t always mean someone is stealing money or stock from the company, they might be also inappropriately using company resources for personal gain.
- Misusing technology – this has become more common in the modern era. Many companies provide internet to their employees with parameters they don’t mind if they use it sparingly for personal use. Sometimes employees abuse this and spend all day using social media and even accessing material such as inappropriate videos on company computers.
- Lying – whether its management telling lies to employees, coworkers lying to one another, employees lying to management or the company lying to its customers, being dishonest is never a good idea. When lies are exposed there are usually negative consequences for whoever has told the lie.
- Inappropriate workplace relationships – relationships between co-workers can get messy for many reasons. It can lead to claims of favoritism when the relationship is between a manager and a subordinate. There can be consequences outside the workplace too if the relationship involves an extramarital affair.
How to improve ethics in your workplace
Understanding the principles of ethics can help guide your employees’ behavior. When they understand what is considered acceptable and what is unacceptable conduct, they are more likely to make better decisions and take appropriate actions. Steps you can take include:
- Having a code of conduct for employees that outlines the ethical behavior you expect them to undertake is the starting point of improving ethics within the workplace. Employees who don’t adhere to the code can be given warnings and even be fired, depending on the violation.
- Build a positive culture where employees feel they can speak up to report any unethical behavior, without recriminations or reprisals. Provide a system for them to report this behavior.
- Train your employees on ethics as part of their induction process to the company, and follow up with annual refresher training.
- Communicate the importance of integrity wherever possible.
- Have your CEO and senior managers lead by example.
Communicating ethics within your company
Keeping the importance of ethics front-of—mind is essential if you want to improve ethical behavior in your workplace. Communicating the importance of ethical behavior should be ongoing – don’t just rely on the fact you have a policy and expect people to find it and read it.
In a smaller company, where there aren’t as many employees it can be easier for senior management to know and personally interact with every staff member to discuss ethics. When there are few employees it’s also more likely that senior management can see what their employees are doing every day.
When your workforce is large, spread across different geographic locations and you have new people joining the company all the time, communicating your company’s ethical stance is important to ensure your standards of integrity don’t slip.
Ways to communicate ethics include:
- Lead by example.
- Make the topic a standing item at team or company wide meetings.
- Include information about ethics in your internal newsletters.
- Ensure your code of conduct, company values, whistleblower procedures and so on are easy to find and linked to prominently on your internet and intranet sites.
- Use corporate wallpaper, screensavers and digital signage on screens throughout your company to reinforce your code of conduct and values via a system like DeskAlerts.
- Survey or quiz your employees to determine their levels of knowledge around ethical behavior.