In business, ethics and accountability go hand in hand. Giving your team a list of ethical responsibilities will not affect behavior if the informal culture at your company is to wink at unethical behavior. To create a healthy, ethical culture, hold employees accountable when they act unethically.

Ethical Responsibility Definition

Ethical responsibility at work refers to the obligation each person has to do the right thing. The scope of this obligation varies depending on the position. A sales clerk's obligations, for example, could include honestly handling money, respecting customers and reporting coworkers who shoplift items. The store manager's responsibilities are greater because the manager has to decide how to manage employees ethically and what to do with employees who act dishonestly.

Definition of Accountability

Accountability is about answering for your actions and decisions and accepting responsibility for mistakes. An employee or executive may have to answer to coworkers, superiors, customers and outside auditors or regulators. Ideally, it is a two-way street: Employers and CEOs must answer to the people below them for their decisions too.

Ethics and Accountability Examples

The basics of ethics and accountability are the stuff we learn as kids: Be honest. Do not cheat. Own up when you make a mistake. Do not push the blame on someone else. In a business organization with a hierarchical structure and levels of power and responsibilities, you can draw up a longer list of ethical responsibilities and issues:

  • Is it ethical to lay off a worker without giving him any warning so he will keep working hard right up to the last day?

  • Is it ethical for an employee to quit without giving notice? What if she is taking time away from work to job hunt?

  • As a team leader, do you look out for the welfare of your team members, or do you put maximizing profits ahead of any burdens or stress it places on them?

  • Do managers at your company treat their subordinates fairly?

  • Will employees speak up if someone else is acting unethically?

  • Will managers react to stop unethical behavior in their department?

It is important to share your views and ethical principles with employees. One common reason employees act unethically is because they did not realize they would crossed an ethical line.

Why Accountability Matters

A list of ethical responsibilities is not enough to create ethical responsibility in your company. You have to demonstrate that it is more than just talk by holding people responsible when they do the wrong thing. If employees see cheaters and liars getting ahead or sexual harassment going unpunished, they will assume the company does not care about ethics.

  • Suppose you learn employees are lying or acting unethically to meet their sales quotas. If you turn a blind eye, the message employees hear is that winning is more important than ethics.

  • If you expect loyalty but do not give it or call for respect but bully your subordinates, employees will assume your list of ethical responsibilities is a sham.

  • If an employee reports a star performer for sexual harassment, and you take no action, employees learn there is no point in reporting wrongdoings.

The Culture of Silence

Most employees witness unethical behavior in the workplace, but only about half of the incidents get reported. Employees routinely turn a blind eye to coworkers filching office supplies or fudging their time cards, which makes them reluctant to speak up about serious breaches of ethics. If you never hear about the problems, your company's culture can turn toxic.

There are multiple reasons employees stay silent instead of holding each other accountable:

  • They are afraid that speaking up will damage their career.

  • If they blow the whistle, and the offender keeps his job, it will be hard to keep working with him.

  • The employee does not think the company will listen.

  • They do not know how to bring up their concerns.

  • They are afraid of management retribution, especially if the person they report outranks them.

  • They feel a loyalty to their teammates and do not want to report them.

Showing that you value ethics and accountability can create a climate where employees speak up. This includes making your ethical views clear, walking the walk and responding to both ethical and unethical behavior in the workplace. Your team will learn from your example.