Workplace Ethics

Effective and appropriate workplace ethics-principles and practices that define the duties, obligations and, by implication, the rights of an organization's members-builds on the individual and collective values found in society. Any workplace ethical standards sharply at variance with those privately or publicly embraced by its members are likely to be protested, resisted or at least questioned by them.

Conversely, when an organization's specific rules and codes dovetail with the core morality of its employees, compliance facilitated by comprehension and agreement is very likely to be very willing. Preaching is always easier when it is directed at the already mostly converted.

When a given organization's ethics deviate from those of its employees, special effort will be required to "sell" them, e.g., in "pump-and-dump" stock operations that fleece clients as the wool is pulled over their eyes. (Yes, even evil-doers believe they are doing "the right thing"-at least for themselves.)

Workplace ethics, more commonly called "business ethics" in the US, occupies a spot somewhere between law and religion. Like the law, its rules and allowed practices are regarded as being susceptible to modification and evolution; like religion, those principles are regarded as somehow chiseled in stone emotionally, if not literally, and enunciated with piety akin to religious fervor.

Ideally, any code of ethics should be comprehensible to as well as compulsorily binding upon those subject to it. This means that workplace ethics should do more than control the behavior of an organization's members. In any of its specific embodiments, it should also seem reasonable and well-justified. Commandments without explanation seem to work well for religions; but they are not likely to seem compelling in the second sense, when trumpeted to a savvy, feisty or skeptical workforce.

The behaviors that a company wishes to instill in managing workplace ethics will primarily be determined by the organizational culture and priorities that guide organizational decisions, but with inspiration and constraints from the broader community in which the organization operates and is embedded.

To ensure a positive and ethical environment, the guidelines for the culture and goals must be reinforced on a regular basis, and each decision made should be based on the principles of the underlying mission, vision, and values upon which the culture is intended to be based. The simplest and most effective strategy for reinforcing workplace ethics is through the coaching method of management, which requires accountability at all levels and uses a mentoring-based solution to problems with employee behavior or performance.

As with any rule or guideline that the company wishes employees to follow, the key to compliance is consistency and clarity throughout the organization. If upper management is perceived as unethical, the likelihood of subordinates taking the morally higher road diminishes in proportion to the latter's awareness of and comparable immunity from the consequences of unethical behavior. Leading by example is best demonstrated in the area of ethics, as it is a reflection of a person both within and outside of the workplace, and will inspire the type of compliance that is highly desired.

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