Workplace Incivility: The New Normal
Workplace Bullies Charm their way to the Top

Ethics in the Workplace

Questions to ask to enhance Ethics Standards in Business

I have previously blogged about the declining civility in America. The 2013 edition of Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey by the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick reported that civility continues to disintegrate and rude behavior is becoming the "new normal." Reports of personal infringements are on the rise, driving 70 percent of Americans to believe that incivility has reached crisis proportions.

With Americans encountering incivility more than twice a day, on average, and 43 percent expecting to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. In reality, incivility merely mirrors changing (and not for the better) societal ethics.

Ethics in the workplace has been declining for some time both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In a recent study out of the United Kingdom, nearly a third (29.4 per cent) admit to regularly ditching ethics in the workplace according to a study by the Chartered Management Institute.

When quizzed, managers are most likely to put behaving unethically down to job progression being more important than behaving morally (cited by 41.2 per cent). In contrast, non-managers are most likely to say they feel pressured into working in an unethical way (42.6 per cent).

White lies are a constant with almost one in three workers (30.4 per cent) reporting they tell at least one white lie a day at work, and 10.3 per cent help themselves to company supplies for personal purposes.

Managers are more likely than other workers to mislead people at work with 35.4 per cent bending the truth once a day or more, compared to 25.3 per cent of other staff.

Workers are confused about where to turn for guidance, with just 17 per cent saying they’re aware their company has a values statement and they know what is in it. Some 40.3 per cent of employees believe setting ethical standards at work is the responsibility of every employee, rather than just up to managers or the CEO. However, managers are more likely than other workers to think it is important to be seen as ethical at work (66.4 per cent compared to 54.0 per cent).

One of the most important responsibilities that we place on the leaders of organizations is upholding the highest standards of ethical behavior.  In a nutshell, this comes down to doing the right thing even when the wrong thing might also have some attraction. 

Workplace ethics are most often related to decision-making processes.  Most leaders face the opportunity to choose between alternative courses of action in their work situations. Workplace ethics refer to choosing the option that is determined to be the moral or legal “right” choice, even if the other alternative(s) are very attractive and even if you can “get away with” the less ethical choice.  

Leaders are often put in decisions where they must choose among options that vary in their degree of ethical behavior.  One of the reasons why this is a common issue for leaders is that there are often competing priorities for businesses.  On the one hand, organizations exist to generate profits for their shareholders, which may encourage leaders to act in ways that are less ethical in order to cut costs or increase revenues.  On the other hand, organizations are made up of human beings who are personally invested in the company and often live in the communities in which they work.  If the individuals are harmed by decisions that maximize company profitability, then the decision is not an ethical one.  Only one stakeholder is getting their needs met, at the expense of other stakeholders. 

According to one theory, leaders may make bad ethical decisions and rationalize these decisions.  For example, a leader may tell themselves it is not really illegal or immoral, or perhaps that it will never be found out or that their bad behavior will be rewarded. 

If you are worried about how a decision will impact others or how others will perceive your decision, then chances are ethics are a consideration.  You might start by asking yourself some questions:

  1. Do I understand the problem and stakeholders involved?
  2. Can I identify the ethical issues that affect the stakeholders?
  3. What are my alternative courses of action to resolve the problem?
  4. Is each of the alternatives consistent with the ethical standards/code of ethics in place at the organization?
  5. Is each of the alternatives consistent with the ethical norms of society?  
  6. Would I feel comfortable defending my action to top management and the board of directors when explaining my decision?
  7. How would I feel if the decision made the front pages of the paper? Can I defend it?
  8. How would I feel if a close family member knew of the decision I made and process followed? Would they proud of how I resolved the matter?

An important point to make is when it comes to integrity, leading by example is key so managers need to re-focus on principles, not personal gain. We’ve seen company after company fall foul of ethical scandals and the costs can be huge – not only financially, but in the damage that’s done to hard-won reputations. There is an old saying that it takes a long time to build a reputation for trust, but not very long to lose it. Just look at Lance Armstrong for a recent example.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 2, 2013