Most employers would say that good workplace ethics are important. However, many might have a hard time defining the term, or outlining how they plan to create and sustain a "good workplace ethics" environment. But while the term "good workplace ethics" is fuzzy, the benefits are clear. Companies with ethical cultures are better able to manage risk, attract top talent, bolster their reputation and stay out of legal trouble.
Workplace ethics is a giant umbrella term that can cover anything from refraining from using the office copier for personal use, to reporting accurate profits. In order to understand, set goals for and achieve "good" workplace ethics, it is helpful to break the term down into categories.
Types of workplace ethics include "virtue," "utilitarian," "duty" and "discourse," according to Cornelius von Baeyer, principal of Workplace Ethics Consultancy, and a past chair of the Ethics Practitioners Association of Canada. Virtue ethics relates to the character of an individual. Utilitarian ethics relates to acting in the best interest of the most people. Duty ethics is similar to "the golden rule," and discourse ethics involves reaching conclusions based on the strength of an argument, instead of bribes, other forms of influence, or its source.
One popular myth surrounding workplace ethics is that legal compliance equals an organization with morally sound members. However, employees can act within the law and still break ethical standards, such as over- or under-emphasizing information, or treating others with a lack of respect or courtesy. Realizing the differences between legal compliance and ethics is critical part of management. Often, when a company has not complied with laws or regulations, causes can be traced back to repeated breaches of ethics norms that have gone unnoticed or undisciplined, according to Carter McNamara, Partner, Authenticity Consulting.
While defining a workplace's code of ethics is helpful, simply distributing a handbook and expecting employee compliance is not a sound strategy for creating an ethical workplace. Effective ethics training teaches employees sensitivity to ethical issues; how to identify potential conflicts; and how to resolve problem situations by following company policy, according to HR Train, an online provider of training programs.
Ineffective training programs expect employees to follow "common sense" rules to resolve conflicts, or scare employees by expecting them to decipher complicated legal or philosophical guidelines on their own, according to the company. Training should also be refreshed periodically to address new issues raised by technology or a changing workforce.
The benefits of good workplace ethics extend beyond simply keeping an organization out of legal trouble. Companies who have established an ethical workplace environment enjoy an advantage in recruiting and retaining top performers, a good reputation, and greater trust among employees, according to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). In addition, providing ethics training helps employees resolve difficult moral situations on their own. Conclusions reached with training and employer guidance usually successfully address the issue, but also serve the organization's best interest, according to ASAE.
While defining a company's ethical guidelines and providing training, resources and guidance help to create a "good ethics" culture, enforcement is also required. One recommended type of enforcement is a whistle-blower system, where employees can report unethical behavior to their superiors. However, simply having a whistle-blower system in place is not enough to enforce ethics or address lapses. Senior level managers, including a company's board of directors, must be committed to the enforcement program, and encourage employees to come forward without fear of retaliation, according to I-Sight, an investigation software company.
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