Shawn Smith

Article Summary:

How to communicate good values and establish an ethical workplace.

Communicating Workplace Ethics

Ask any number of executives whether ethics is important in their workplaces, and you are likely to get similar answers, ranging from, “Of course it is. Our company operates under the highest standards of ethics and integrity,” to “We have an ethics policy. Our expectations are clear.” But are employees getting the message?

Not according to a recent study conducted by Walker Information. Only 59% of American working adults surveyed believe that their organization is highly ethical overall, and only 56% believe that ethics policies have been effectively communicated in the workplace. Equally disturbing, approximately 65% of individuals who witnessed ethical violations in the workplace are not reporting them.

As an employer, it is not enough to have good intentions to follow an ethical path. If you do not take steps to create a work environment where your employees have a clear, common understanding of what is right and wrong, and feel free to discuss and ask questions about ethical issues and report violations, you risk significant problems, including:

  • Increased risk of employees making unethical decisions
  • Increased tendency of employees to report violations to outside regulatory authorities because they lack an adequate internal forum
  • Inability to recruit and retain top people
  • Diminished reputation in the industry and the community
These problems can add up to significant legal exposure and loss of competitive advantage in the marketplace. The employers that best avoid these difficulties are not necessarily the ones with the fanciest ethics policies, but those that most effectively provide their workforce with the framework to identify and address ethical issues as they arise.

Establish Open Communication
Do not expect a piece of paper to do all your work for you. Instead of just creating and distributing an ethics policy, take the time to explain the reasons for the policy and review the guidelines. Conduct formal or informal training to further sensitize employees to potential ethical issues. Teach new hires about your company values from the outset by orienting them to the ethics code during new-employee orientation.

Many of the ethical problems arising in a business are not clear-cut, but involve “gray areas,” where the proper course of action may be ambiguous and uncertain. Strive to create a work environment where employees understand that it is acceptable to have an ethical dilemma, and give workers the resources to help resolve the situation.

Establish a point of contact where employees can go to ask questions in confidence about the work situations they confront. Act under the premise that most employees want to do the right thing, and will be seeking guidance in making the correct ethical decisions. Although there will always be employees who do wrong intentionally, these will probably not be the ones that are coming for assistance, so avoid the temptation to use the system as a way to root out violators. This will result in a lack of trust, and discourage people from using this resource.

Creating an atmosphere of trust is also critical in encouraging employees to report ethical violations they observe. According to the Walker Information study, many employees are reluctant to report misconduct for fear of retaliation by management or co-workers. Others adopt a more detached approach, believing that they are not responsible for reporting violations, or that management would not respond to a complaint.

Executives and managers must stress to employees that dishonest or unethical conduct will not be tolerated, and that they are expected to report any wrongdoing they encounter. Show through actions as well as words that the company relies on, rather than discriminates against, those who come forward concerning ethical breaches.

Set an Example from the Top
As with any business policy or practice, employees are unlikely to take an organization’s code of ethics seriously unless top management gives these standards more than lip service. This means that executives and managers not only need to endorse strict standards of conduct, but also that they must follow the code themselves. If, for example, your company has a policy against accepting gifts from vendors, but executives routinely attend sporting events and Broadway shows courtesy of its suppliers, the employee view of management commitment is likely to be cynical at best.

As an executive or manager, serve as a mentor and model to teach others about values-based decision-making. When appropriate, share with your organization some of the ethical dilemmas you have faced on the job and the decisions you have made, especially when these decisions involved doing the right thing rather than what was profitable or expedient. Demonstrate honesty and fairness as a part of your leadership style, and it is more likely that those down the line will follow your example.

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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