Ethics in the Workplace
Questions confront our helpline consultants daily about what is right or wrong.
In the workplace, the marketplace, and in our homes, we inevitably wrestle with moral issues. With the increasing complexity of the workplace, and the prevailing pressure to do more with less, the moral fabric within the workplace is constantly being tested. The public trust is in crisis. From the White House to our house, and everywhere in between, employees and citizens express their concern and outrage concerning moral shortcomings of corporate and public leaders.
Because of the prominence and significance of unethical behavior, business schools and students, corporate executives, and human resources professionals have expressed an increasing concern and interest in moral decision-making. The federal government responded with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, requiring more corporate transparency in order to reduce scandals.
Ethics and codes of conduct are coming under closer consideration by job candidates. Today’s candidates care more about having meaningful work and being part of a reputable company than about receiving a bigger paycheck. From an HR perspective, this means that ethics has become a key factor in recruiting top talent. For this and other reasons, ethics programs often end up under the umbrella of human resources departments.
Strong programs begin with a code of ethics built on defined organizational values, and include training for all employees to prevent corporate scandals. Like most major corporate initiatives, an effective program must have the support of senior management. It should be a frequent topic at meetings and in staff communications. Executives need to address questions of competing corporate responsibilities to multiple stakeholders; employees, stockholders, board members, consumers, vendors, and the general public.
Many executives appreciate that these types of initiatives not only help them avoid unethical business practices, but they can be vehicles for staying out of trouble. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations (FSGO) are important laws that executives and HR professionals must conform to in order to meet that objective.
But for others, doing the right thing provides its own motivation. They embrace ethical behavior. Tom Morris, Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, NC, actually uses the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle, as examples of ethics in his training. “Truth is a powerful force for good in human life” he says. He goes on to say that truth is the foundation of trust. If employees cannot trust management, then the company culture lacks an essential cohesive element necessary for success.
How can an organization build effective teams or launch a powerful initiative when people don’t trust each other? Employees who trusted their organizations with their careers have found themselves with little or no retirement benefits. The moral and legal failing of organizational leadership has been a problem for many in recent years. Now, many organizations are designing ethics initiatives and programs to avoid liability for wrongdoings and to establish a culture of trust.
There is a lot employers can do to better manage their risk or to meet this moral imperative. As previously mentioned, (1) upper management commitment is critical, (2) design an ethics program, (3) implement ethics training, and (4) weave ethics into the organizational culture.
The ethics program should define what ethical behavior is, and must include at a minimum a list of corporate values, an ethics policy, a procedure or guidelines for handling ethical dilemmas in business, and an ethics officer who is chartered with the responsibility to oversee the ethics program.
Written by Thomas Harang, SPHR, Helpline Consultant.
Edited June 2018 by EverythingHR staff.
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