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Raising Ethical Issues in the Workplace

Loyalty to Others vs. Doing the Right Thing in the Workplace

What should you do if you believe an ethical violation has occurred in the workplace? Should you be silent and rationalize the action as a one-time offense? Should you blow the whistle on wrongdoing? Or, what are the middle ground options?

Loyalty in the workplace is important. After all, your co-workers have to trust that you will respect confidentiality. Your superiors expect loyalty to the actions of top management. The question is what do you want; expect; and value in the workplace?

The purpose of this blog is to bring into focus steps employees can take to clarify ethical issues and decide on a course of action when an ethical dilemma exists and suggestions for managers to enhance the ethics in their organizations.

Discussing workplace issues is easier said than done. The well-known ethicist, Mary Gentile, who is the Director of Giving Voice to Values and Senior Research Scholar at Babson College, points out that “Responding to intense pressure for short-term results, people working for corporations often cut corners that they shouldn't. We use all kinds of rationalizations to excuse these behaviors — everything from ‘everyone does it’ to ‘nobody's getting hurt by this’ to 'I'd get fired if I complained.’”

Here are some useful ideas on how you can deal with ethical issues in the workplace.

  1. Ethical dilemmas are a normal part of your job. Co-workers might ask you to overlook a mistake they have made; poor judgment; or worse – fraudulent behavior. You must realize your loyalty is not to your co-workers or even your supervisor. It is to the organization as a whole; the employees who are ethical and have their jobs on the line; and the shareholders who have invested in the company with the expectation top management will act ethically and they will earn a fair rate of return on their investment.
  2. Be clear on what are the values of your employer. You should consult policy statements about one’s responsibilities in the workplace and the code of ethics. It’s important to evaluate your values against those of the company. Ethical congruence is one of the keys to ethical behavior in organizations. Ask yourself what is the culture of the organization? Is this an organization I would be proud to say I work for?
  3. Consider who you can talk to if you have an ethical dilemma, assuming you already have gone to your supervisor. Many companies today have a hot line where you can receive advice anonymously and/or a designated individual who will hear you out and provide advice without fear of retribution.

Morality and values-based dilemmas in the workplace are, at best, difficult to handle when employees have to choose between what’s right and what’s wrong according to their own principles. Forward-thinking employers who implement workplace ethics policies are usually well-prepared for the potential conflicts of interest that arise due to the diversity of opinion, values and culture in the workforce. However, handling ethical issues in the workplace requires a steady and cautious approach to matters which can potentially be dangerous or illegal.

My advice to employers to manage workplace dilemmas is as follows. Some of these ideas have been formed from a helpful booklet put out by Dale Carnegie Training Internal Conflict Resolution Guidebook.

  • Develop a workplace policy based on your company’s philosophy, mission statement and code of conduct. Incorporate the policy into your performance evaluation program to hold employees accountable for their actions and alert them to their responsibilities to uphold professional standards throughout their job performance and interaction with peers and supervisors. Revise your employee handbook to include the policy and provide copies of the revised handbook to employees. Obtain signed acknowledgement forms from employees that indicate they received and understand the workplace ethics policy.
  • Provide workplace ethics training to employees. Utilize varied instruction methods to engage employees in learning how to address and resolve ethical dilemmas. Experiential learning, or role-play, is an effective way to facilitate workplace ethics training. Examples of workplace ethics simulations involve scenarios about the misappropriation of company funds, personal values related to improper workplace relationships and the organization’s compliance with regulatory controls.
  • Designate an ombudsperson in charge of handling employees’ informal concerns pertaining to workplace ethics. Consider whether your organization also needs an ethics hotline, which is a confidential service employees may contact whenever they encounter workplace dilemmas that put them into uncomfortable or threatening positions. Confidential hotlines are an effective way to assure employees’ anonymity, which is a concern for employees whose alerts are considered “whistleblowing” actions.
  • Research federal, state and municipal labor and employment laws pertaining to whistleblowing. Refrain from making employment decisions, such as termination or suspension, in connection with whistleblowing or an employee’s right to protected activity under whistleblowing laws or public policy. Laws such as the Federal False Claims Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act all address whistle-blower obligations and protections.
  • Apply your workplace policy consistently when addressing workplace issues and employee concerns about workplace ethics. Use the same business principles in every circumstance, regardless of the perceived seriousness or the level of employees involved. Communicate the same expectations for all employees – whether they are in executive positions or front-line production roles – and approach every issue with equal interpretation of the company policy.

An ethical organization environment is essential in today’s workplace culture where pressure exists to meet financial goals and conflicts occur more frequently including those fueled by the use of social media. Without a commitment by top management to ‘walk the talk of ethics,” an organization can morph into ethical relativism where my ethics are my ethics and your ethics are your ethics and never the two shall meet.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 15, 2013