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Unethical Behaviors in the Workplace

Abuse of Social Media in the Workplace on the Rise

I recently read a piece about the five most unethical behaviors in the workplace. Arthur Schwartz points out that each day roughly 120 million people walk into a workplace somewhere in the U.S. Within the past year, almost half of these workers personally witnessed some form of ethical misconduct, according to a recent survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center (ERC).

Schwartz points out that the issue is not workers being privy to the CFO committing fraud. More likely, it's someone who lied to a supervisor or handed in a false expense report. Listed below, according to the ERC study, are the five most frequently observed unethical behaviors in the U.S. workplace.

1. Misusing company time

Whether it is covering for someone who shows up late or altering a time sheet, misusing company time tops the list. This category includes knowing that one of your co-workers is conducting personal business on company time. By "personal business" the survey recognizes the difference between making cold calls to advance your freelance business and calling your spouse to find out how your sick child is doing.

2. Abusive behavior

Too many workplaces are filled with managers and supervisors who use their position and power to mistreat or disrespect others. Unfortunately, unless the situation you're in involves race, gender or ethnic origin, there is often no legal protection against abusive behavior in the workplace.

3. Employee theft

According to a recent study by Jack L. Hayes International, one out of every 40 employees in 2012 was caught stealing from their employer. Even more startling is that these employees steal on average 5.5 times more than shoplifters ($715 vs $129). Employee fraud is also on the uptick, whether its check tampering, not recording sales in order to skim, or manipulating expense reimbursements. The FBI recently reported that employee theft is the fasting growing crime in the U.S. today.

4. Lying to employees

The fastest way to lose the trust of your employees is to lie to them, yet employers do it all the time. One of out every five employees report that their manager or supervisor has lied to them within the past year.

5. Violating company internet policies

Cyberslackers. Cyberloafers. These are terms used to identify people who surf the Web when they should be working. It's a huge, multi-billion-dollar problem for companies. A survey conducted recently by found that every day at least 64 percent of employees visit websites that have nothing to do with their work.

The ERC study points out that most American workers and employers do the right thing. The survey reveals that most follow the company's ethical standards of behavior, and are willing to report wrongdoing when it occurs, except if it relates to the company’s Internet use policy.

These results are retrospective and do not reflect the increasing trend of employees’ use of social media at work for personal purposes. According to a Forbes study, 64% of employees visit non-work related websites daily, and wasted the most time on these social sharing sites (in descending order):

Tumblr – 57 percent

Facebook – 52 percent

Twitter – 17 percent

Instagram – 11 percent

SnapChat – 4 percent

The question is how much control an employer should have over its employees’ use of social media. This is an emerging issue and one where the rules and ethical guidelines have not caught up with technology. One of the most difficult things for employers to monitor is what an employee is looking at his/her computer screen. Short of walking around frequently and checking it out, as a possible deterrent to improper use, an employer has to trust that employees will use good judgment when it comes to the use of social media in the workplace.

Part of the problem with defining social media abuse is how common Internet use is in our daily personal and professional lives. In an age when employers expect workers to respond to client emails immediately and social networking sites reload with new information every minute, it's often hard to define the limits between normal and abusive. Businesses need to be proactive in the workplace with establishing these limits, creating a clear and comprehensive acceptable use policy and communicating it to employees through presentation and workshops. Good communication can generate a workplace-wide consensus on the behavior that falls outside acceptable boundaries.

Most of all the Internet use policy should be tied to the general issue of ethics in the workplace. The use and abuse of social media in the workplace is an excellent way to give life to the provisions in a code of ethics.

Two of the five most unethical practices relate to the abuse of social media at work: violating company Internet policy and misusing company time. Those who excessively surf the Internet at work for personal reasons are stealing from their companies. They are being paid for work when they are not doing so. The ethics policy must be clear on this matter. In the end it is no different from coming in late; leaving early; or taking long lunch hours and being paid for that time.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 25, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: