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Workplace Behavior and Ethics: Values to Live and Work By

Creating an Ethical Workplace Environment

Last week a reader asked about an incident at work where a co-worker made sexual remarks about her appearance that day. “You look good in yellow. That’s a beautiful sweater.” Other comments were made that created an unwelcome environment at work. Since she worked closely with the co-worker, she said nothing. Several days went on and the comments became more frequent. After enduring weeks of the inappropriate comments, the reader voiced her concerns with the HR department. Much to her surprise, the HR people said she would have to first discuss the matter with her co-worker then go to her supervisor if the co-worker persisted in his behavior. The reader asked for my advice.

I’m not an attorney so I couldn’t comment on any legal issues that might arise in the present or the future. It seemed to me to be a clear case of sexual harassment. I advised the reader to document everything that had gone on since the first comments were made, give a copy to a trusted advisor, and contact her supervisor. I did not think she should approach the co-worker because you never know what that will lead to when dealing with someone who disrespects you so much that sexually-charged comments are made without regard to common decency.

The reader went to her supervisor and a week later was fired for poor performance. She wrote back to me and asked “What next?” I told her to contact an employment attorney and look into suing the employer for wrongful termination. I don’t know if she did so, but feel that she has a good case.

The purpose of this blog is to remind my readers of certain basic ethical principles in the workplace. The most important are to treat others the way we want to be treated. It’s the “Golden Rule.” We all want respect in the workplace. We all should give respect to others that we work with. With respect comes treating others fairly, caring about what happens to others, and being a responsible, trustworthy, and diligent worker.

The key to fostering ethics in the workplace is not to have a code of conduct on a piece of paper that is filed away and never looked at again. Such superficial efforts never work. Ethics is a living, breathing, basis for all conduct both in the workplace and life. An organization that strives to be known for high ethical standards must create an ethical environment by “walking the talk” of ethics. Top management must be ethical in word and deed and set a good example for employees. After all, very few people would choose to work for a company that did not have high ethical standards.

Ethics training is an important component of building an ethical organization environment. Ethics can be taught. I know it from my own college teaching. But, ethicists must be creative in teaching ethics. Straight lecturing on a code of conduct or just talking about the do’s and don’ts doesn’t work well. Ethics must be engaging and case studies are a good way to engage others in a dialogue about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

I have always found that I am most successful in teaching ethics to my students when I provide ethical dilemmas they might encounter and then role-play alternative ways to handle the problem.  Young people especially seem to like acting out alternative scenarios. I figure it is part of our social media, You Tube-oriented society.

Some final tips on creating an ethical organization environment:

  • Create an outlet for employees to raise matters of concern in an anonymous manner – use hot lines and ethics officers to facilitate the dialogue.
  • Add ethical behavior to the performance evaluation system: evaluate whether employees have been responsible in carrying out their obligations; what is their reputation with co-workers and supervisors; do they live up to the organization’s ideals?
  • Charge the board of directors (or audit committee) with overseeing ethics in the organization: useful tools include internal control procedures to guide ethical behavior and ethics audits.
  • Remind employees that at work, as in life, you are what you do: one’s actions define one’s character

I hope this blog has been helpful to those who strive to improve their own ethical behavior and that of   the organization they work for. Ethics is not a spigot we can turn on and off as we like. True ethical behavior requires consistency in all actions. In other words, we learn to be ethical people by consistently doing ethical things.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 31, 2013