Definition of Workplace Ethics

by Lindsay Kramer; Updated June 08, 2018
Businessmen shaking hands in office

In the workplace, ethics are the moral guidelines that an organization as a whole, and the individuals who comprise it, follow to comply with state and federal laws. Ethics also are the basis of a cohesive, supportive company culture and an important way for a company to build a strong relationship with its customers. Many companies make their ethics into marketing points, such as Chipotle advertising that it does not source meat from suppliers that use artificial hormones or antibiotics in their meat production. Similarly, Lush’s commitment to minimizing waste by using recycled materials for its labels and paper packaging is based on their ethics.

Workplace Ethics Definition

Ethics are the moral principles that drive an individual’s behavior. People have personal ethics in many areas of their lives, such as ethics for family relationships or romantic relationships. Workplace ethics are, by definition, the moral principles that guide a person's actions in the workplace. Ethical standards can vary from industry to industry, and from position to position within an industry. They can also vary by specific field within a larger industry. For example, the workplace ethics that doctors and others in the health care industry follow are different from the ethics that govern police officers and others in law enforcement. In turn, these ethics are different from the ones that govern telecommunications, IT and education. Therefore, an individual’s personal workplace ethics depend on his role in the company, the industry and the company's relationship with the “outside world,” which includes consumers, vendors and industry regulators.

In many cases, a company’s workplace ethics are necessarily shaped by industry or government regulations. They may also be informed by precedents set by other companies in the industry and market demands. Workplace ethics are dynamic. They can, and do evolve as employee and consumer needs change and technology evolves and alters industries and workplaces.

Examples of Workplace Ethics

In most cases, workplace ethics are derived from secular values like:

  • trustworthiness
  • integrity
  • fairness
  • responsibility
  • accountability
  • loyalty
  • comradery
  • citizenship
  • respect
  • caring

In some companies, ethics come from specific religious teachings. Sometimes, this leads to controversial positions. A prominent example of a company with controversial ethical positions is Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A publicly brands itself as a company with Christian values. Some of its ethical choices, like its support of organizations that provide summer camp experiences for underprivileged children, have been universally praised by the public. Others, like its support of organizations that lobbied against marriage equality, have evoked criticism of the company. But Chick-fil-A, amid the criticism and the praise, has remained transparent about its ethics regarding the organizations it supports and how it treats its employees, famously closing every restaurant location on Sundays so employees can spend time with their families.

In many industries, workplace ethics are derived from laws and industry regulations. In the United States, employers are required to comply with the safety laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and anti-discrimination laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The protections these laws offer to employees can be used as a springboard to create workplace ethics, such as:

  • anti-discrimination policies
  • anti-harassment policies
  • policies for interactions with clients
  • safety policies

Workplace ethics can go beyond keywords and ideas and be specific actions employees are strongly encouraged, or even required to take in certain situations. A company might create a hotline to encourage employees to anonymously report sexual harassment, instead of ignoring it or resolving it on their own and allow Human Resources to handle any sexual harassment issues that arise.

A few specific examples of workplace ethics in action include:

  • Policies for disclosing the sourcing of materials or labor to inquiring consumers.
  • Anti-discrimination policies regarding interactions with clients, such as requiring employees to address all clients in English, rather than make assumptions about their languages based on their appearance.
  • Policies that provide specific boundaries for romantic relationships between employees, including relationships between supervisors and their reporting staff.
  • Time-off policies that provide clear instructions for how employees may request and use their paid time off.
  • Clear explanation of the disciplinary actions that will be taken against employees who violate workplace ethical guidelines.

In some cases, workplace behavioral guidelines need to be adapted in consideration of cultural differences. For example, a U.S.-based company might value addressing conflicts between colleagues directly in order to resolve the conflict, but have to adapt this practice to align more closely to Chinese employees’ value on "saving face" when working with a Chinese company.

Examples of Workplace Ethics Violations

When an employee defies established workplace ethics, he can do more than just cause a conflict. Depending on the nature of the violation, the offending employee could potentially commit an illegal act or violate industry standards.

Examples of ethical violations that can occur in the workplace include:

  • Asking a job applicant if she has children, as this can be construed as a discriminatory question.
  • Quoting a higher price for a service for a Latino client than the price typically quoted for white clients.
  • A supervisor failing to provide necessary safety equipment for staff to perform a manual labor task.
  • An employee lying about his position to a prospective vendor or making orders or decisions he is not in the position to make.
  • Engaging in gossip or starting a rumor about a fellow employee.
  • Failing to report a piece of broken equipment to a supervisor.
  • Failing to provide testimony to support a colleague’s sexual harassment claim despite having witnessed the harassment firsthand.
  • Taking office supplies from work for personal use.
  • Offering a raise or other favorable treatment in exchange for a sexual relationship with a subordinate.
  • Giving a subordinate preferential treatment because she is a friend.
  • Making personal phone calls during work hours.
  • Making personal purchases with a company credit card.
  • Calling in sick when really, the employee wanted to spend the day at the beach.
  • Covering up unethical or ethically ambiguous business practices.
  • Paying workers less than the legal minimum wage.
  • Engaging in exploitative sourcing or labor practices.

How to Teach Workplace Ethics

Many companies write their ethics into employee handbooks and code of conduct policies. These policies can be quite extensive, and cover topics ranging from reporting sexual harassment to how to accept gifts from vendors. It is not uncommon for a company to include a preview of its ethical standards in job listings or to discuss company ethical guidelines during interviews with prospective employees. A company’s ethical standards are a key part of its culture. By making their ethical standards readily available as public information, companies make it easy for prospective employees to decide if that company's workplace culture would be a good fit for them. Also, employers themselves can decide which job candidates are the best fit for open positions. In many companies, transparency is a key workplace value. Making workplace ethics public information is a way to practice transparency.

Teaching workplace ethics is an ongoing effort. In many companies, new hires undergo ethics training to bring them up to speed on what is expected of them. Companies also frequently host ethics refresher courses and training to correct any misconceptions employees have about workplace ethics, touch on pertinent issues and address concerns from management and parties outside the company.

Teaching workplace ethics effectively requires more than lecturing to employees and expecting them to regurgitate information. Effective teaching methods challenge learners, pushing them to think critically about the information they’re presented with and dismantle destructive, unethical thought patterns and processes. A few effective ways to teach workplace ethics and make an impact on employees are:

Role-playing complex ethical situations: In brief scenarios, employees take on specific roles, such as vendor and customer service representative, and verbally walk through some of the ethical challenges that can arise in interactions between these two parties.

Discussions about workplace ethics: Sitting in the conference room together, discussing the ethical dilemmas that come up and how to handle them, can be a very effective way to brainstorm solutions to ethical dilemmas that arise. Discussions can instruct employees on effective ways to manage the ethical challenges they face. Supplement discussions with PowerPoint presentations, props and photos as appropriate.

Creating ethical dilemmas: Instead of presenting employees with ethical dilemmas to solve, asking them to come up with ethical dilemmas is a way to push their thinking in another direction, to encourage them to think creatively about realistic scenarios they could face in the workplace. Once each individual or group has presented a hypothetical ethical dilemma, the rest of the group can propose solutions to the challenge presented, then discuss the proposed solutions along with what not to do in the specific scenarios.

For example:

  • What would you do if you see a coworker harassing another employee, or a supervisor bullying a subordinate?
  • A coworker who has a difficult home situation is always late for work but she slides in unnoticed. Would you report her, or not? 
  • You overhear a coworker make a racial slur against another racial or ethnic group. What would you do?

Other effective ways to continually reinforce ethical guidelines in the workplace include:

  • Pop quizzes on ethical challenges and their appropriate responses.
  • Regular online and in-person ethics training courses.

Why Workplace Ethics are Important

Workplace ethics are important because they keep all members of an organization accountable for their actions. Maintaining a strong, ethical code creates a sense of security through boundaries for employees. It also enables management to make decisions that benefit the company as a whole while meeting consumer and employee needs.

By creating boundaries for employees at all levels, workplace ethics help employees feel valued. In a workplace with no ethical standards, an employee might feel like she cannot speak to a supervisor about her sexual harassment experience, or as if she has no guidance on how to manage interactions with a difficult customer. Just as in romantic and family relationships, ethics serve to create healthy relationships between colleagues.

Workplace ethics matter outside the workplace, too. In today’s online world, every company is under close public scrutiny. Maintaining ethical standards helps companies maintain strong relationships with consumers by setting precedents in their industries that command respect.

Poor ethical practices can backfire on a company and tarnish the public’s perception of it. A few notable examples of this include:

  • H&M’s controversial ad that featured a black boy modeling a sweatshirt that reads “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”
  • The New York Post’s photograph of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks, facing a train headed toward him. Many criticized the photographer for taking the photo instead of helping the man.
  • Various criticisms against Nestle for allegedly unethical practices over multiple decades.

Consumers respect companies that maintain strong ethical standards, and other companies are more likely to partner and work with those that have records of ethical practices and a continuing commitment to doing the right thing. In short, workplace ethics are good for business.

About the Author

Lindsay Kramer is a freelance writer and editor from New Jersey. She loves singing, laughing, cooking, and exploring new places. Aside from writing, Lindsay enjoys surfing and reading tarot cards.

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