Encouraging Positive Behavior On the Job: Ethics in the Workplace
Have you ever experienced a situation at work in which a highly performing and highly skilled employee was accused of some inappropriate or unethical behavior in the workplace? You probably watched, along with other employees, to see if the person being accused would be confronted and if their behavior would be acknowledged as unethical. Maybe you were disappointed because your organization overlooked the unethical behavior due to the fact that the accused employee was such a “good” performer?
Most of us have experienced or witnessed some type of inappropriate behavior in the workplace and have been involved or observed how the organization handled it. Many organizations do a good job of finding moral grounding and dealing with unethical behavior when it is encountered. Other organizations may struggle even though they understand and value the importance of practicing good ethics in the workplace.
The Importance of Ethics in the Workplace
I remember playing golf with my dad when I was young. He used to say to me, “Count every stroke, including your penalty strokes.” Since I hit the ball out of bounds a lot, it wasn’t easy giving myself the two-stroke penalty each time I hit the ball out of bounds. I certainly wasn’t going to break any of Arnold Palmer’s golf records. But, besides instilling in me the importance of keeping an honest golf score, my dad was teaching me another important life lesson about honesty.
By keeping an accurate score each time I played, I could tell how much I was improving each time I played. The accuracy of my golf score helped me get better at playing golf because I knew what part of my game I needed to focus on. Thanks to my dad’s wise golf advice, I have been able to apply that same life lesson to others areas of life, including my work.
Ethics in the workplace should be a core value of any organization. Aside from doing the right thing, conducting ourselves ethically has great rewards and returns. Being ethical is essential to fixing problems and improving processes. It is needed to establish baseline measures and increase efficiencies. Most importantly, it is essential to having strong working relationships with people. On the other hand, covering up our unethical behavior does the opposite. Obfuscating and hiding from of our failings impedes our ability to grow as leaders, as workers, and as people. It also ensures that our coworkers won’t trust us.
Let’s say that I believe that it is important to be an honest person. What do I do when I make an error at work? Do I admit it or do I cover my error and hope that no one finds out? I may rationalize, “If I tell my boss, she will be disappointed in me. I may not get that raise that is coming up next month. There is no harm in not telling her.” Or, if you are the boss and made a mistake, you may rationalize that you don’t own your employees anything, including honesty, because–well–you’re the boss.
As humans, we tend to weigh the benefits and consequences of our actions and look for the path of least resistance, where we will suffer the fewest consequences, which includes uncomfortable feelings. But this is like not counting the penalty strokes. It’s not going to help you improve, and it might cause harm to the people around. Instead, when we are deciding what to do with an error we have made, we need to ask ourselves: “Do I really value honesty like I say I do? If I am willing to lie or avoid to hide up my error, what am I really valuing?” When we lie to cover up our mistakes, we are doing so to protect ourselves from the consequences of our actions. We aren’t thinking about the team. So, what is the greater value to us, honesty or self-protection? This is an especially important question for leaders, as leaders set the standard for the culture of an organization and ethics in the workplace.
As leaders, the importance of being ethical must be emphasized more, not less. Leaders must always be cognizant of the fact that they are in a “fishbowl” and how they behave is clearly visible to everyone. Whatever they do will not only be seen by others, but may be duplicated as well. So how do we ensure that we not only say that honesty is important, but that we “walk the talk?” Here are some important things to consider to shore-up your ethics in the workplace so that good behavior is practiced and encouraged by everyone in the organization.
Tips for Managing Ethics in the Workplace
1. Define your values. If you haven’t done so already, define your values and include honesty as a core value. Take your leadership team off on a retreat or use your staff meetings, but make sure that you have clear and visible statements about what is important to your core business principles. Put them up on a poster so that they are visible to all employees. Post them on your website, put them in your policy manual and your employee handbook. And, add them to your performance review process so that you can hold people accountable to them.
2. If you post it, you must practice. Posting values and then not actively demonstrating them can be very damaging to an organization’s culture. Hold everyone accountable, especially your senior management team. Make sure that they are “walking the talk” of ethical behavior. If they are doing anything that even could be perceived as questionable, confront it. This includes being honest with employees about your own mistakes and misjudgments. People are human. Mistakes happen. What matters is owning up to them. This is as true for the CEO as it is for the lowest level employee in the company.
3. Integrate ethical workplace behavior into performance criteria. Don’t rate people as “high performers” if they do not practice ethical workplace behavior. Instill in your leaders that high performance means high integrity. They are not mutually exclusive. Don’t give big raises, promotions, or praise to people who perform “well” by the numbers, but treat other people badly or have questionable ethics in the workplace. Don’t let a highly skilled employee hold you “hostage” over this expectation either. In other words, don’t let people get away with bending the rules of appropriate workplace behavior just because you don’t have a backup plan for them if they quit and go to your competitor. Make sure you have a succession plan in place for anyone who has a skill that is critical to your success.
4. Watch out for the “slippery slope.” Have you ever used the term, “his behavior really crossed the line?” Each workplace has a “line” that separates appropriate behavior from the inappropriate. Organizations get into “hot water” when they define or ignore some unethical behavior because it is considered to be a “small” issue or “no big deal.” When they do this, they are moving their “line” farther down the slippery slope. Many companies who have been sued for large amounts of money due to ethics in the workplace were allowing way too much unethical behavior because their “line” of what was acceptable kept sliding. Businesses must stand firm on their intolerance of any and all dishonesty and unethical behavior.
5. Be above reproach. Above reproach is the practice of not only staying above the “line,” but staying way above it. Don’t play jump rope with what is acceptable behavior. Ethical organizations manage perception as well as reality. They ensure that even those types of behavior that might look like unethical behavior are discouraged and drive this point with their leadership team. They also lead by example.
6. Getting past self-protective behavior. Remember that ethical behavior is not just about me knowing right from wrong; it is about the willingness to admit it when you have misjudged a situation or made a mistake and accepting the consequences of your actions. It is about valuing integrity even when it hurts. Good leaders not only practice ethical behavior themselves; they help people get past looking out just for themselves and seeing the greater good of team and corporate objectives.
Ethical behavior makes organizations succeed. A business that does not value integrity and does not “walk the talk” of being ethical will find themselves at the bottom of the slippery slope and wonder when and how they crossed the “line.” This is why we need ethics in the workplace.
Originally authored by John Sporleder of Sporleder Human Capital in 2009. Revised in 2020.