When you hear the word “ethics,” what pops into your head? Many of us tend to think of a philosophical or moral definition. Or we may think of a metaphorical dilemma of a family that must choose between stealing bread or going hungry. Of course, there isn’t just one definition of ethics or what it means to be ethical. Merriam-Webster defines ethics as “a set of moral principles; a theory, or system of moral values.” Britannica defines it as “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong.”
When we explore ethics in the workplace, we can narrow our focus of ethics as the principles of conduct that guide and govern group behavior. Individual ethical standards may vary widely, but when we are functioning in a group environment such as the workplace, the company’s mission, vision, values, culture, organizational structure, and chains of command will affect overall group behavior.
The Ethics and Compliance Initiative conducted a Global Business Ethics Survey to follow several trends in ethics outcomes, including pressure to compromise ethical standards, observations of misconduct, reporting misconduct, and retaliation after reporting misconduct. Some key takeaways are that approximately 1 in 5 U.S. employees described their workplace as having an ethical culture; U.S. employees experienced twice the pressure to compromise standards in 2020 as compared to 2017; more employees in the U.S. and globally are reporting misconduct, but retaliation rates also increased significantly.
Unethical businesses and business leaders that are on the extreme end of the spectrum get the attention of the general public. Think of the Enron scandal or, more recently, the collapse of Theranos founded by Elizabeth Holmes and the loss of billions of dollars at WeWork under Adam Neumann’s leadership. Countless scholarly articles, news articles, books, and investigative podcasts have explored these instances of widespread business fraud and unethical business practices. They have also become the basis for some of our entertainment with TV shows and movies being made about them. There is much to be learned from these major corporate scandals, but we can also learn from each other in our own business community. Find peers who you can call when you need to confidentially discuss a situation with an outside party or participate in business gatherings where you can connect with other companies and industry leaders who may be willing to participate in information sharing.
So, how do we practice and promote an ethical workplace culture? For starters, every business should have a code of ethics to outline the standards and principles as the basis for decision making and behavior. Typically, codes of ethics begin with clear statements that all legal and regulatory requirements will be followed. From there, they can be expanded to corporate governance specific to the business entity or industry. Many companies include statements regarding confidentiality and protecting proprietary information, disclosing conflicts of interest, and accepting gifts. How can a business expect employees to behave in an ethical way without defining for them what that means in the context of their workplace? How can a business entity hold employees, managers, and the top company leadership accountable when there is no agreed upon or defined standard of ethical conduct? An ethical culture will have foundations in the structural parts of the company as well as the personal characteristics of individuals that make up the company.
Having a documented code of ethics is only the start—the code of ethics needs to be disseminated to employees, easily accessible on your company intranet page or where you retain paper policies, modeled by leadership, and discussed in open forums. Best practice is to have transparency and communication about your workplace ethics policies and expectations. This can be accomplished through training, audits or investigations routinely conducted by external sources, documented and enforced internal control processes, annual requirements for disclosures of possible conflicts of interest, and multiple reporting options for ethical violations. Companies must then also follow through and investigate reports of ethical violations, prevent retaliation to those who report violations, take disciplinary action when warranted, and communicate the resolution of investigations to those involved. Sometimes it may mean communicating the outcomes of audits or large-scale investigations company-wide as well. It may also mean creating new policies or procedures to prevent or discourage ethical violations.
Ethics in the workplace encompasses many things. As individuals, we can begin by thinking about and defining our own personal code of ethics. Then, when we are faced with the inevitable ethical conflict or moral decision in the workplace, we have something to refer to as a starting point. By practicing self-examination and spending time thinking about our own definitions of ethical standards and behavior, we can be more prepared if our own boundaries are tested or we are put in a situation to evaluate an ethical dilemma in the workplace.