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Ethics at Work: Why it Matters
Barbara Crouse

There are a lot of dynamics at play in the modern workplace. Between managing an increasingly diverse workforce, trying to anticipate a highly competitive market, and keeping customers and employees happy, it is always useful to have a system in place to turn to when unexpected things happen. Despite investing significant resources in crafting the right team for an organization, it is not necessarily possible to predict erratic behaviour, and that is why having ethical guidelines in place before accidents occur can be invaluable.

When successful CEOs become embroiled in workplace ethics issues, it usually makes the news. Although public statements can be vague, there is typically an admission that the former leader violated a company’s expected standards of conduct. One factor is always present though, the instability it creates throughout the organization.

For example, when Mark Hurd, former Hewlett-Packard CEO was dismissed, Cathie Lesjak was appointed temporary CEO and asked employees to “to remain focused.” Mark had failed to disclose a close personal relationship he had with the contractor that constituted a conflict of interest, had not kept proper expense reports and, as it was ultimately revealed, misused company assets. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.

While not all ethical violations end in termination, Mr. Hurd is certainly not alone in the category of high-profile executives who have been ousted for personal conduct in recent years. Many of these cases were related to financial transgression, but with new allegations of sexual harassment appearing in the news nearly every day, companies are starting to take a much more serious look at how far their ethical policies extend.

A range of infraction

Although it can be tempting to get caught up in sensationalized reports and the downfall of high ranking CEOs, it is important to remember that lapses in the practice of workplace ethics come in all shapes and sizes. Some ethical oversights only affect individual employees, while others affect whole departments, and in the worst case scenario, can impact a whole company, including stakeholders.

There are some the types of ethical infractions that remains invisible. It is not possible or desirable to have to directly monitor an employee during all their daily tasks and decisions, there are always going to be opportunities for an ethical lapse to occur. Having guiding principles in place can help diminish this risk, because even a minor lapse in workplace ethics can end up negatively impact the quality of the workplace for everyone.

An ethical way to lead

This is why it is critical that those leading an organization serve as an excellent role model for those beneath them. The management team should lead by example, they set the tone for everyone else and are responsible for establishing a standard of conduct.

Running a business in an ethical fashion from the top down means that employees will trust and respect each other, it helps build stronger bonds between individuals on the management team and creates further stability within the company.

Take, for example, the rampant success of a company like Apple. Steve Jobs served as an inspiration and role model to many around him, encouraging them to work hard and to achieve success through ethical means.

Code of conduct

Determining the right behavioural guidelines and principles is essential. Each organization is unique and it is important to have policies in place that are relevant to the environment in which they are being enforced.

This is a process that can take place incrementally. Many organizations start small when establishing an ethics program and build and expand on it depending on needs and feedback. It is not possible to simply storm in one day and change expectations entirely, but step by step, with solid explanations and justifications, it is possible to truly transform a workplace. It is a basic psychological principle that human beings will acclimatize themselves to the expectations set before them. Demand higher ethical performance, and the results will follow.

Employee ethics

When ethical standards of conduct expectations are promoted in an effective and proactive way, business just run better. In an environment free of dishonesty, bribery, and theft, employees are less likely to even consider those less appealing aspects of human behavior as viable options.

Employees makes better decisions in less time when there is a code of conduct in place. Employees who work for a corporation that demands a high standard of business ethics in all facets of operations are more likely to perform their job duties at a higher level and are also more inclined to stay loyal to that organization.

Identify and renew company values

Of course, this success is rooted in a foundation that extends far beyond a document containing a sterile list of do and do-nots. An official code of conduct can only be as good as the values that are expected and displayed every day in a workplace, and companies without a clear sense of what these values are will find themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to developing ethics programs that their employees will respond to.

Time and time again, these programs prove to be most effective when employees understand the guidelines as driven primarily by core values, rather than a desire for a degree of compliance. Not only does an ethics based in values make it easier for everyone to understand why they should adhere on a personal level, but it also gives them a reason to report the bad conduct of others, or admit their own transgressions.

Many companies conduct regular company-wide initiatives that involve employees at all levels of responsibility in renewing company values and updating them when appropriate.

Business ethics benefits

As with all business initiatives, the ethical operation of a company is directly related to profitability in both the short and long term. Having a strict yet sensible ethical reputation increases the loyalty and commitment of both clients and employees. Regardless of a tendency to sometimes veer toward transgressive behaviour, ultimately people crave the stability of a workplace and company they can depend on and trust.

Having a set of unified policies in place also acts a safeguard against liability and lawsuits. When there is something that can clearly be pointed to and acknowledged, an organization enjoys the benefit of an above board reputation that will be appreciated by the public.

Implementing an ethics program

It is necessary to have the right procedures and mechanisms in place to enforce the ethics program. A good policy does more than just outline concepts of good behavior, it also communicates expectations and requirements and contains an inherent method for evaluations.

The reality is, people can be disappointing and creating an enforceable ethics policy might, at times, seem almost possible. There are a multitude of resources in place to help business owners find the method that works best for them. Intensive guides to developing an effective code of conduct, and well as individual audit programs and even establishing an in-house department dedicated to fostering change, are all available options.

As overwhelming as some of this may sound, it is always important for companies to first identity and leverage existing company infrastructure that lends itself to the changes they are hoping to enact. There is no time like the present to take actions. Whether or not a code is already in place, now is the best time to implement or improve up the existing model. Reviewing policies to make sure they are consistent and run throughout all levels of an organization is the best way to see significant and long-lasting change.

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