Today’s consumers are increasingly savvy about companies they support, and a growing segment do so based on their ethical beliefs and world view. The way companies operate and are perceived by the public often comes down to the ethics at work in their firm.

An ethical workplace should model behavior from the top down and from the inside out, from ownership all the way down to front-desk reception staff. Ethics are reflected in how they treat suppliers and consumers, how they interact with others, how they do their tasks and how they communicate internally and externally.


Ethics at work can refer to the way employees govern themselves and their work attitude, but it can also refer to the morality or lack thereof surrounding a workplace.

What Are Ethics?

Ethics come down to the subject of moral philosophy. It’s all about how a person or company’s morality influences the decisions made and the behaviors exhibited. There is the law, and then there’s ethics; it’s possible for a behavior to be legal while still considered unethical.

For instance, a man walking down the street sees a homeless person huddled against a building, seeming to be in bad shape. Legally, he’s not obligated to check in with the homeless person and see if he's OK, but it is unethical to just walk on by. It may be legal for corporations to have environmentally destructive practices in foreign countries, but it's unethical for them to destroy the environment for the sake of money and then walk away.

On the flipside, it's sometimes illegal for cafes to donate leftover pastries to the poor, but it’s the ethical thing to do because someone who is hungry gets to eat. So, the law and ethics don’t always work in tandem. Ethics can be influenced by upbringing, social norms, education, history, religion and so on, but every culture has some precepts on what is deemed the ethical way to behave. Still, nearly every society and faith on the planet has a variation of the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do to you — which is tantamount to an ethical precept.

Semantics of Ethics in Work

Workplace ethics are not the same as work ethic. The work ethic you have is your personal standard for how you do your job. It’s about how detail-oriented you are, what sort of quality you’re intent on delivering for every project you do, whether you’re punctual, how you treat your colleagues, if you take accountability for what you do and so much more. These are all things that can be taught, but they also come down to an employee’s internal moral code.

Workplace ethics can go two ways. One is how the employee governs herself within the workplace, but the other is the ethics at play in the corporate culture and how the company conducts itself both inside the firm and also in the larger world. Each of these can affect morale, performance, loyalty, job turnover and even employee work ethic.

The good news is that managerial styles can greatly improve employee work ethic simply by creating systems and habits for getting work done and interacting in the workplace.

Work Ethic: 8 Characteristics

  1. Punctuality: The old “time is money” mantra matters when it comes to work. Whether it’s getting projects completed when due, showing up on time, following break-time protocols or informing your supervisors of hiccups or challenges with as much lead time as you can, it’s all about respecting that time is valuable – not just for you but for the company, for colleagues and even for clients.

  2. Accountability: Being accountable means shouldering the responsibility for projects happening or even taking the blame when things go poorly.

  3. Focus: Seeing a task through requires paying attention to it, and that’s hard to do if you let yourself get distracted by chatter, social media and the like.

  4. Initiative: Doing something without being asked is initiative. Great employees care about doing what needs to be done whether it’s on their task list or not. Showing initiative is the way to indicate that you value results and are willing to do what it takes to ensure the company's success.

  5. Productivity: If you’re productive, it means you’re skilled at overcoming distractions, ignoring your mood and conquering technology and other issues all to deliver solid results. Getting work done is what it’s all about, day in and day out.

  6. Professionalism: Showing up and taking work seriously, treating others with respect and dressing appropriately for the job are all aspects of being professional.

  7. Dedication: Dedication means consistency and showing up ready to get the job done daily while having a great level of focus and productivity every day. When management knows what they can expect from you because you’ve demonstrated it week after week, it makes a big difference in their ability to manage projects and meet deadlines.

  8. Desire to improve: Employees who embrace feedback and teaching moments show that they’re willing to work to grow in their jobs. This helps management know which employees have the most potential.

How to Inspire Work Ethic

Those work ethic characteristics are moot if employees are working for a company that doesn’t use its talent as best as it can. A scant 33 percent of employees reported feeling somewhat engaged by their workplace in Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace poll. That means 67 percent of workers were actively or somewhat disengaged while at work. The blame for that lies entirely on workplace culture and poor management, but there are some steps managers can take to change that.

  1. Set achievable goals: Be clear about the goals for projects and the company and set achievable benchmarks along the way. By knowing toward what they’re working, employees can be more productive, show initiative and stay focused.

  2. Lead by example: Employees can’t or won’t be professional and respectful if management fails to behave that way. Punctuality, accountability, discipline and dedication are all characteristics that must be modeled from the top down. Display behaviors and employees will mirror them, good or bad. As business leader Jim Rohn once said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

  3. Create a great environment: The more accommodating and welcoming a workplace, the more employees will feel comfortable working in it. If the place is messy, chaotic, cramped, cold, poorly lit or has other uncomfortable attributes, they will be looking for the exit sign from the moment they get to work. More importantly, a clean and clutter-free workplace improves productivity.

  4. Provide feedback and mentorship: Employees can’t become better if they’re never told where they’re not making the grade — or where they are. It’s important to let employees know when work is not up to standards, but it’s also critical to let them know when they’re doing great so they can repeat their behavior. For employees who consistently do great work and aspire to accomplish more in the company, mentorship should be provided so they can learn and grow.

  5. Remove hurdles: Whether it’s a team member failing to contribute or a manager failing to lead well, it’s important to remove burdens from the workplace so employees can excel. This also means quashing negative gossip, keeping a lid on office politics, paying people what they’re worth and giving opportunities for people to gain advancement and promotion no matter their gender or race.

  6. Inspire people to work: In the end, all the motivational quotes in the world won’t do a thing if people don’t feel valued or appreciated. The quickest way to achieve that is to pay them what they’re worth and give them benefits.

  7. Listen: The only ones surprised by toxic workplaces are managers that either cause it or fail to listen to employees reporting it. Give employees easier access to speak up when they're having issues with people or projects.

Ethics in the Workplace: Examples

Beyond work ethic and instilling work ethic is that dubious line between workplace laws and ethics. Companies should always have an employee handbook or code of conduct available so employees understand where the company stands on everything from social-media use to dating co-workers. Just remember that some unethical behavior seems harmless, but it’s a big indicator of your character and who you are, and folks will notice.

  • Preferential treatment: Some people get special treatment at work — it can be patronage, friendship, a sexual relationship or more. Whatever the case, it’s unfair and unethical to show favoritism.

  • Gossiping: Spreading rumors about others, projects, the company’s plans or anything else is unethical, and worse, it shows that you’re not to be trusted when discretion counts. It’s a mistake to think that others aren’t taking note of your loose tongue.

  • Dishonesty: Taking credit for other people’s work or lying about your progress on a project are presumably obvious examples of lies, but dishonesty comes in so many forms. It’s another trait that can derail your career no matter how small the lie.

  • Selfishness: Hoarding office supplies so you don’t run out isn’t team behavior. Leaving dishes unwashed in the kitchen is selfish and immature if it’s not an accepted practice. So is not remaking coffee and not refilling the printer paper — it’s a simple matter of doing unto others what you’d like them to do for you.

Corporate Ethics

Ethical dilemmas are constantly on the radar for companies, including their environmental practices, payroll choices, political wrangling, hiring policies, revenue reporting and so much more. Companies have an ethical stance in both how they project themselves to the wider world and how they operate internally, from hiring practices to carbon footprints. When it comes to ethics in the workplace, diversity is a big topic today because it’s not just about hiring diverse workers but also elevating them to managerial and c-suite roles.

The diversity issue also applies to equality between male and female co-workers, where equal work should mean equal pay, but the gender pay gap still persists, with the U.S. Census reporting that women earn 80.7 cents on the dollar compared to men, who take in an average of $9,909 annually versus female counterparts. Changing this status quo is seen as an ethical imperative for many people today.

Corporate Ethics Abroad

Multinationals with offices in different countries and on different continents face ongoing ethical challenges because accepted norms vary quite drastically by region. Google is a great example, considering its presence in China, because it is the ultimate champion of the free internet and information exchange, so much so that "just Google it" has joined the modern lexicon. However, to provide any of that to the Chinese public, they kowtow to a communist government known for suppressing free speech — but is that unethical of them?

Ultimately, the definition of "ethical" varies tremendously. There is no shortage of companies that take advantage of this gray area. Some people’s moral code has much more flex than that of others, and that’s why laws get made — because eventually, an incident reveals how important it is for the black-and-white moral clarity that laws provide.