Shawn Smith

Article Summary:

Determining how you can run an ethical workplace.

Ethics in the Workplace

It is easy to decide that you want to run an ethical workplace, but then come the tough questions:

  • How do I determine the ethical values of my company?
  • How do I make ethical choices when the “right answer” is unclear?
  • Do ethics really apply in today’s individualistic society?
  • In today’s turbulent economy, doesn’t a business have to do anything it can to survive at all costs?

Ethics in Uncertain Times
It is only natural to question the relevance of ethics in a society that makes media figures out of people like the contestants on television’s Survivor, who lie, backstab and otherwise “play the game” for the chance to win $1,000,000. Is corporate America any different, especially in an economically uncertain environment? In the midst of mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, restructuring– is it fair to expect organizations to define and hold to a set of values as they struggle to succeed?

The Enron/Arthur Andersen matter illustrates the critical importance of adhering to ethical standards in today’s world, and just how vulnerable employees and organizations can be to ethical problems that can potentially threaten the future of the entire organization.

In turbulent economic times, corporate ethics are more essential than ever. A study by the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, DC examining the link between organizations undergoing transitions and workplace ethics suggested that in transitioning organizations, “when times are toughest and ethical risks are greatest, ethics programs may matter most to organizations and their employees.” When everything else in the workplace is uncertain, a strong grounding in ethical values will help to provide the consistency to keep the company on course.

Determining what is Ethical
The development and implementation of ethical practices in the workplace has become a management discipline in and of itself, but the general concepts are not complex. Whether a business is considering how to treat its employees, create its products, serve its customers or participate in the community, the ethical answers all revolve around doing the “right thing” rather than what may be the most profitable or expedient in the short term.

On a simple level, this means treating employees fairly, producing a quality, safe product, striving to continuously improve customer service and acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Most businesses successfully apply these concepts when the ethical answer is clear-cut. We do not steal from our employees. We do sell products that we know will be dangerous to our customers.

Often, however, the answers are highly complex. It is these “gray areas” that cause the majority of ethical dilemmas. In their classic book The Power of Ethical Management, Authors Kenneth Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale put forth three questions that you should ask yourself when you are faced with an ethical dilemma regarding any action that you are considering:

  • Is it legal? Will you be violating any laws by taking this action?

  • Is it balanced? Is it fair to all parties concerned both in the long and short terms? Would you be happy with this action if you were in the other party’s shoes?

  • Is it right? Are you proud of yourself for the course of action you are taking? Would you be proud to let others know of your decision?

The more complex the ethical dilemma, the more important it is to consider all of these three questions before engaging in an activity, as asking only one or two of the questions will not always result in the ethical answer. For example, while it is not illegal to lie to your boss or treat your subordinates disrespectfully, these actions are certainly not fair or right.

Establishing a Code of Ethical Conduct
While there are certain values that are essential to furthering ethical actions, there is no one magical “code of conduct” document that applies to all businesses. A company’s ethical guidelines will vary with the values and culture of each individual organization, and emphasize those values and behaviors that are most critical to the organization.

While an accounting group might focus on integrity, confidentiality and obligations to its clients, an international manufacturing company might emphasize refraining from conflicts of interest and adhering to laws regarding trade overseas. If an organization experiences a problem in a particular ethical area, such as a rash of employee theft, the code of ethics should be revised to concentrate on the issue.

A company’s code of conduct is a “living document,” and should undergo continuous review and revision by management to reflect changes in the needs of the organization.

Shawn Smith is a consultant, speaker, attorney and the founder of Next Level Consulting, LLC, an organizational development and management consulting firm. She has worked with a broad range of public, private and non-profit organizations to develop practical programs and strategies to navigate change, increase individual and organizational effectiveness and exceed business objectives. Shawn is the co-author of The HR Answer Book: An Indispensable Guide for Managers and Human Resources Professionals (AMACOM 2004). Contact her for more information through her web site at

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