We’ve all observed unethical behaviors in the workplace, whether the workplace is at a desk or in the field. According to the 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey, 47% of workers reported observing misconduct at work in 2017. Unethical behavior is especially common at the top. Of those workers who had observed misconduct, 63% reported that the misconduct was performed by a member of management or a first-line supervisor.
When it comes to fighting unethical behavior at work, it’s best to play the role of a detective. Ethics in the workplace must be addressed with a curious mindset, and should first aim to find the facts.
1. Ensure no one is exempt
No one is exempt from ethics, security, and safety policies. The same should be true in the workplace. There should be a clear policies that are clearly and consistently communicated to employees. Everyone, including and maybe especially senior leaders, should be trained on the policy and participate in ethical training. A coach can help you build a psychologically safe culture that encourages employees to voice issues and concerns.
Leaders have an especially strong responsibility to adhere to high ethical standards. Linda Fisher Thornton, author of “7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership”, has explained, “Maintain the status of ethics as a total, absolute, 'must do' in the organization. Hold everyone, particularly senior leaders and high-profile managers, accountable. No exceptions.”
2. Encourage and reward employees for speaking up
Just as in many other enforcement systems, whistleblowers should be rewarded. The most effective antidote against unethical behavior in the workplace is a strong culture where employees feel psychologically safe to speak up. Employees must be confident that their concerns will be listened to and valued.
There are typically two things that prevent employees from speaking up against unethical behavior, according to New York University’s Elizabeth Morrison. The first is what is called the natural feeling of futility. It’s the feeling that speaking up isn’t worth the effort or that no one wants to hear it. The second is the natural fear that speaking up will lead to retribution or punishment. As a leader, the safer an environment you create, the more willing employees will be to voice concerns.
It starts at the top. Executives and leaders must consistently emphasize the importance of ethics. They should openly discuss ethical issues with employees and reflect on how they addressed and responded to unethical situations that have happened in the workplace (of course, while protecting the confidentiality of the individuals involved).
The fallouts of unethical actions and behaviors can prove disastrous for a company. Remember the horror stories of Enron, WorldCom, and Bernie Madoff. Ethics must be ingrained in every business. They need to be lived and breathed. As D.H. Lawrence remarked, "Ethics and equity and the principles of justice do not change with the calendar." It’s time to channel your inner detective to determine the facts.
I care deeply about helping leaders and advancing the human resources profession. I have authored two books, The Art of Executive Coaching and Stress-less Leadership, and maintain a regular blog. I am also a leading contributor for The Society For Human Resources Management, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Association of Talent Development.
As an active animal advocate, I donate 100% of all book proceeds to animal welfare.
The opinions in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of my publishers or employers.