Ethical Behavior at Work

AN OLD-FASHIONED SOFT SKILL FOR THE NEW WORLD

If ethical behavior had been taught to employees and reinforced as a must-have soft skill, could we have prevented the economic meltdown? This article contains some practical ideas and tips for keeping your own professional ethics in tip-top shape as we navigate our way out of the recession.

We explored this question in a recent Klaus and Associates survey and the results are in. Although 87% of respondents believe that a lack of ethics led to the current economic disaster, there’s hope for the future: a reassuring 80% think that ethics can be taught.

Sixty-seven percent of the survey respondents pointed a finger at the profit-hungry business environment as a contributing factor to a rise in unethical behavior, with 59% agreeing that shady conduct in the workplace derives more from company culture than from individual employees. Translation: It’s imperative for organizations to promote an ethical culture on a company-wide scale.

Many companies do incorporate a strong code of ethics into their culture. Gap, Inc., for example, made a corporate commitment to being both ethical and socially responsible. By adopting “Do What’s Right” as a core principle at the top, the company established a set of ideals and behaviors that filter down throughout the organization’s 134,000 employees. Another large corporation, Johnson & Johnson, operates from a lengthy credo that challenges employees to put first the needs and well-being of those they serve. Whenever I come across people who work at Johnson & Johnson, I’m amazed by the fact that they can recite parts of the credo. Johnson & Johnson employees have also told me that they consider the company values before making decisions.

While it’s encouraging to note examples of exemplary companies, apparently entire sectors might be due for an ethics overhaul. Of the survey respondents, 54% believe that stricter industry regulations are called for to ensure higher ethical standards and more than 64% think that people in certain industries are especially inclined to behave unethically. I’ll leave it to you to guess which industries they had in mind!

No matter the industry in which you work or what kind of position you hold within your firm, here are some practical ideas and tips for keeping your own professional ethics in tip-top shape as we navigate our way out of the recession:

CREATE A PERSONAL CODE OF CONDUCT AND STICK TO IT. 
Know and truly understand your company’s values, not just the rules and regulations. In addition, develop your own code of conduct and follow it regardless of where you work. Always weigh your actions against both your personal principles and the company’s, then hold yourself to the higher standard—go beyond the minimum required of you. While 100% of the survey respondents say they personally behave ethically at work and most think the majority of their colleagues do too, having and sticking to a personal code of conduct will help keep your actions above reproach.

ETHICAL BEHAVIOR SHOULDN’T PUNCH OUT WHEN YOU PUNCH IN. 
Ethics are something to adhere to all the time, not just on your own time. When asked if people have a lower standard of ethical behavior at work than they do in their personal lives, the responses were mixed: 38% disagree, 34% agree, and 29% are on the fence. These results suggest that the ethical standards of some people decrease when they walk in the office door, a finding that greatly concerns me. When it comes to ethics, the highest standards should be followed regardless of the venue. If you are more inclined to let yourself off the hook when on the job, then become extra vigilant about keeping yourself in line. When you find yourself in a questionable situation at work, you need to take what I call your ethical temperature. Ask yourself questions like, “How would I react if something similar occurred in my personal life? If this situation were to take place outside of the office, where would I stand and what would I do or say?”

KNOW THE RED FLAG STATEMENTS.
If you find that you’re whispering any of the following to yourself, think long and hard about what you’re really doing:

  • It won’t matter just this once.
  • They’ll never miss it.
  • Well, I didn’t break any laws.
  • It’s not such a big deal.
  • Aren’t rules made to be broken?

ETHICAL BEHAVIOR STARTS AT THE TOP.
If you’re the boss or a supervisor, you know that employees hang on your every word. But what you may not realize is that they also emulate your behavior. If employees see managers cutting corners and taking excessive risks to achieve business goals, they will too. Likewise, if you vigorously promote and exemplify ethical behavior and ideals, the staff will likely follow suit. More than 20% of the survey respondents think that higher-ups behave less ethically than lower ranking employees, whereas fewer than 5% think the reverse is true! So when you are the person in charge, be as transparent, open, and informative as possible.