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Keys to Making Ethical Decsisions in the Workplace

I have conducted ethics programs for many organizations and served as an expert witness where ethical issues and professional conduct was involved. Ethical dilemmas in the workplace often occur because your boss asks you to do something that seems unethical or go along with wrongdoing. Here’s what you should do in such situations. First I suggest you seek out advice from a mentor or trusted advisor. Do not agree to go along with the request until you have clarified the issues and the positions of the key parties involved in the situation. Get a second opinion. Most important to remember is that if you agree to go along with wrongdoing, then you have taken the first step down the proverbial ethical slippery slope and it may be difficult to turn around and climb back up the ladder if your conscience gets the better of you. What happens is you become invested in that position and will want to protect it at all costs. Moreover, once you agree to go along with unethical conduct of a supervisor, perhaps out of fear that you’ll lose your job if you don’t, it is quite possible that same supervisor will ask and expect you to along with questionable behavior in the future. It almost becomes an “I gotcha” culture.

The 2010 Deloitte Ethics and Workplace Survey asked a variety of questions including: What factors contribute to employees’ plans to seek new jobs as the economy improves? Here are the results: 48% answered loss of trust; 46% lack of transparency in communications; and 40% said being treated unfairly or unethically by employers. The results seem to indicate that employees value ethical behavior in the workplace.

Employees who sense that top managers act unethically quickly loose trust in those managers. The result can be to become disillusioned with the goals of the organization and question whether the corporate culture is one that is consistent with those individuals’ personal values and beliefs. We all want to work for an ethical organization – one that we respect. An ethical organization is one in which top managers establish a tone at the top that promotes ethical behavior including to raise questions when questionable behavior occurs. Here is my top ten list (in no particular order) of how best to establish an ethical tone at the top.

1.      Establish clear policies on ethical conduct including a code of ethics

2.      Develop an ethics training program that instills a commitment to act ethically and explains code provisions

3.      Assign a top level officer (i.e., VP of Ethics) to oversee compliance with ethics policies

4.      Use the internal auditors to investigate whether the ethics policies have been followed in practice

5.      Establish strong internal controls to prevent and detect unethical behavior

6.      Establish an ethics hot line where employees can discuss questionable behavior on an anonymous basis

7.      Have employees sign a statement that they have complied with ethics policies

8.      Take immediate action against those who violate ethics policies

9.      Top management should “walk the talk” of ethics; follow their own ethics policies in word and deed

10.  Reward ethical behavior by including it in the performance evaluation system

There are four characteristics inherent in the character of an individual that enables ethical decision-making. First, you must be sensitive to the fact that an ethical issue exists. For example, whenever your actions affect others the way in which you decide on a course of action and how you treat others is a matter of ethics. Remember, the ends do not justify the means. It's wrong to use people for your advantage or ignore their needs simply to accomplish a personal goal.

Second, you need the skills to think through a conflict situation using ethical reasoning. Ask yourself what parties (stakeholders) are affected by my potential actions; do I treat them fairly; do I respect their rights; will my actions create more benefits than harms.

Next, you must intend to act ethically. Many people can reason out right versus wrong but fall short on moral motivation. They simply do not care if they act ethically or not, and some are even guided by the pursuit of self-interests while ignoring the interests of others.

Lastly, no matter how ethical you think you are or how well you understand what makes for ethical decision-making, the courage to carry out your actions is essential to ethical decision-making. Pressures exist in the workplace to “go with the flow,” “don’t rock the boat,” and be a “team player.” A person of integrity does not let those factors or loyalty to another party get in the way of acting in accordance with ethical principles formed by possessing certain character traits or virtues such as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, fairness, diligence, responsibility, and caring and empathy.

During my years of researching, writing, publishing articles and books on ethics, I have conducted ethics training for a variety of organizations and served as an expert witness. If you would like to discuss how I can help you and your organization deal with ethical dilemmas and create an ethical workplace environment, please contact me at: smintz@calpoly.edu.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 24, 2011

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