While I am enjoying the lovely summer weather and have read a book or two, I am shocked to the core about the number of ethical issues arising in the workplace I am reading about in the newspaper every day.
For instance, who would have thought that one of our elected city councillors would blatantly use his corporate credit card for personal expenses? Not only that, it is understood the credit card was used for an entire two years and 600 transactions in spite of multiple warnings.
What did this issue cost the city, not only in terms of interest fees, but equally in terms of staff frustration in having to deal with an elected councillor who wouldn’t obey the rules? What were the consequences of his actions? In this situation, all the city could do was to take his corporate credit card away. Now, if this were in the private sector, the individual would be terminated.
While this incident of unethical behaviour has been quite high-profile and may seem rather isolated, I can assure you that whether in politics or the private sector, it is a lot more common that we would like to think.
In fact, unethical behaviour in the form of low-level "incivility," which includes rude behaviour, condescending tone of speech, rough language and/or a lack of regard for others, is now seen as having reached a crisis level in our society.
Unfortunately, in the opinion of many, if this trend continues, incivility is in danger of being normalized.
Many attribute this rise of incivility and unethical behaviour to the recent United States presidential election and the ongoing behaviour of Donald Trump. However, others believe the trend started with the relaxation of traditional rules of etiquette in the workplace, including business casual dress.
Today, on occasion, you can’t tell the difference between an employee and a customer who just arrived from the beach. If that’s the case, if you turned to ask an individual who was engaged in uncivil dialogue, and ask why they are behaving that way, they would probably say, "Well, everyone does it!"
There is evidence of other types of unethical behaviour all around us, including personal, professional and corporate behaviour.
Some employees think nothing of calling in sick just to get a day off. Some individuals think nothing of paying someone under the table, especially if they get a "cheap" deal. On the other hand, there are some employers who refuse to pay an employee for their total hours worked. Professionals, too, are known to have overstepped into unethical practice by overcharging and/or recommending an additional special service in which they also have ownership.
And don’t think larger corporations always engage in ethical behaviour. Just last week, we heard news about a manufacturer putting horse meat into its sausages and selling them as beef. What about a bottled water company that labelled its water as something special when it was really just tap water? What about corporations that have lied about their market penetration in order to attract investors?
Have you ever encountered someone who started a vicious rumour about you? Or have you applied for a free gift on the internet only to be billed for it afterward? All of this and more are examples of unethical behaviour.
Unethical behaviour has serious consequences for both individuals and organizations. You can lose your job and reputation, organizations can lose their credibility, general morale and productivity can decline, or the behaviour can result in significant fines and/or financial loss.
Take the former accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, for example. This well-known "Big Five" accounting firm was required to surrender its licence to practise and went bankrupt over its unethical behaviour related to one of its clients.
Ethics is a very complex area, but no matter what, ethical behaviour is all about decision-making. It is about making decisions based on the moral values and principles of what is right and wrong. The following guideline will help you reach ethical decisions that are the best for all:
Stop and think
Determine and define the factual elements of the issue causing particular challenges. Explore all the elements and clarify them. Usually there are several elements to each issue… brainstorm so you don’t miss any, otherwise you may go down the path of the wrong solution.
Research and identify how the issue is affecting the organization. Be factual while considering all elements such as financial concerns, public relations, employee job satisfaction, morale, productivity and customer service. Take care to consider the validity of your information.
Clarify your goal
Determine short- and long-term goals alike. What do you want to see happen? Write your goal in terms of being specific and measurable. Be sure the goals fit into the overall mission and mandate of your organization.
Develop potential solutions
Once you have the facts, brainstorm a variety of potential options and then evaluate each of them. Identify the challenges, risks, consequence and/or opportunities that would come with each solution. Identify who will be affected and where the win-win versus win-lose opportunities exist. Does your solution cause any unintended or undesirable results that need to be considered?
Apply an ethics checklist
- Review your potential solutions against the ethics checklist:
- Have you applied full disclosure and will your recommendation be viewed as trustworthy?
- Does your solution show duty of care and avoidance of conflict of interest?
- Is your solution fair and objective?
- Is your solution in compliance with all applicable legislation and professional standards?
- Is your solution focused on a commitment to public good?
- Would your solution survive a strong media test?
Make your recommendation
Present your ideas to management and be prepared to respond to any of the ethical issues that may be questioned. You have done your homework, so you should be ready. Modify if necessary.
Whether you are solving a corporate work challenge and/or trying to resolve a personal issue, the guidelines stated above will apply to all situations. The key thing is to learn to think about the ethics of every decision you make, whether it is what to say to an individual, responding to a personal criticism or making any kind of decision in your workplace. Even choosing to do your job well and on time versus being sloppy and careless is essentially an ethical decision.
From low-level incivility to bullying and personal harassment, misrepresentation in advertising, corporate fraud and bribery seem to have become more commonplace. Either that or we are just becoming more aware of it.
Thankfully, society is starting to react and much more attention is being drawn to the extent of the problem and what to do about it. Accountability and transparency are the new buzzwords. Corporations and cities are adding integrity officers, ensuring everyone is aware of the codes of conduct, training employees on the issue of ethics and cracking down on offenders.
Yet, no matter what, it is up to each of us to understand what ethical behaviour is, think about it each and every time we make a decision, and to alert our leaders when we see it happening. We cannot afford as a society to let unethical behaviour become normalized.