Ethical lapses in the workplace are growing. The percentage of employees who had witnessed at least one breach of ethics in the workplace was 56 percent, according to a 2007 National Business Ethics Survey by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC), up 3 percent from 2005. The most prevalent abuses include conflicts of interest and simply lying, the survey said. Most abuses are committed on a personal rather than an organizational level. However, all ethical lapses are dangerous and detrimental to a company and its workers. Employees should be aware of ethical danger signs in the workplace.

Obvious Signs

Some ethical danger signs are obvious. Any order that breaks the law should be a warning. You should also be aware of any directive that strays from the company’s stated values or accepted procedures, according to Don Blohowiak of the LeadWell Institute. Commands to change documentation—through the falsification of information or the destruction of files, for instance–are also ethical danger signs. Another red flag would be any request to swear an allegiance or sign an oath of secrecy.

Subtle Signs

High-profile abuses account for a small percentage of business losses originating from poor ethical behavior, according to Frank Navran, founder of Navran Associates. Most money lost to unethical behavior comes from subtle lapses. In a 2002 ERC article, Navran uses “saboteurs” as a mnemonic device to point out subtle ethical danger signs in the workplace:

  • Scapegoating – placing blame where it does not belong.
  • Abdicating – failing to accept responsibility.
  • Budgeteering – falsifying financial information like budgets.
  • Overpromising – failing to follow through on promises.
  • Turf guarding – being overly controlling.
  • Empire building – hoarding power and authority.
  • Underachieving – failing to meet minimum expectations.
  • Risk avoiding – resorting to a safe (but wrong) position.
  • Sharp penciling – overinflating results.

Dangerous Phrases

LeadWell’s Blohowiak also cites these phrases uttered by an employee’s superiors as ones that might signal ethical lapses in the workplace. These include:

  • “No one will even notice.”
  • “Technically, this isn’t illegal.”
  • “I’m counting on your loyalty.”
  • “It may not seem like it, but this is really for the best.”
  • “I’m not telling you to do this, but…”
  • “This goes no further than this room…”

Organizational Signs

The Management-Issues website also points out some indicators that an organization might be on the verge of widespread misconduct:

  • Debate over current policies and procedures is quashed.
  • Negative news is often spun.
  • Management does not share information.
  • Short-term results are emphasized and coupled with unachievable expectations.
  • Management believes in manipulating customers or clients.
  • Company values are not discussed.

“Negative workplaces” foster misconduct, according to the Washington, D.C.-based ERC. The center points out three conditions that breed negative workplaces:

  • A dissatisfaction with information from top management and supervisors.
  • A distrust of top management, supervisors and co-workers, particularly when it comes to keeping promises and commitments.
  • A system that rewards employees even if their means of achievement are suspect.

What to Do

If you spot ethical danger signs in the workplace or need help making an ethical decision, you should turn to your manager or supervisor first. You might have to go to human resources or, if your company has one, the legal department. The Texas Instruments Corp. Ethics Office lists some questions that serve as guidelines for recognizing an ethical decision or problem. They include:

  • How will you feel tomorrow if you do this?
  • Do your personal goals come in conflict with your professional goals?
  • Will your decisions create strong feelings or generate controversy?