We hear a lot about ethical workplace practices with most companies having at least some rules in place to govern employees’ behavior. That said, actual workplace practices do not always align with written policies and procedures. Think about it: how many times have you been told by a coworker or supervisor that “nobody actually does that,” or “that’s an old rule. Don’t worry about it,” when referring to written policies? Whether or not these contradictions were justifiable, it is easy to see that a written set of rules, alone, is not enough to ensure that expectations are being met. In the following, we will discuss the importance of encouraging ethical behavior in the workplace as well as how to really do so.
Let’s begin by defining ethical behavior. The Business News Daily article, “A Culture of Ethical Behavior is Essential to Business Success,” by Sean Peek states, “In a business setting, ethical behavior applies to any employee, team lead, or supervisor. They should display behavior that is honest and fair in their relationships with co-workers and their clients.” Examples of ethical behavior in the business setting include mutual respect and open communication between employees at all levels, taking responsibility for one’s actions, even when this means admitting mistakes, and being honest with clients and customers, even when doing so may cause upset in the short term. Even though it can be hard to always choose the most ethical option, doing so pays off in the long run. The article states, “Business ethics isn’t always exalted in every workplace, but it’s critically important when it comes to providing customers with quality service, adhering to regulatory compliance standards, and avoiding steep fines and lawsuits.” If this isn’t reason enough to do the right thing, the article adds, “A reputation for positive ethical behavior entices more potential clients, customers and partners to work with you. It also builds customer loyalty over time, creating a customer base that is likely to refer your business to others.” With this in mind, how can companies best encourage ethical practices?
The best methods for promoting ethics in the workplace take into account that an individual’s behavior is greatly influenced by context. The Harvard Business Review article, “How to Design an Ethical Organization,” by Nicholas Epley and Amit Kumar explains, “a large body of behavior science research suggests that even well-meaning and well-informed people are more ethically malleable than one might guess. When watching a potential emergency unfold, for example, people are much more likely to intervene if they are alone than if other bystanders are around – because they think others will deal with the situation, believe that others are more qualified to help, or fail to recognize an emergency because others don’t look alarmed.” Because of the major role that context plays in shaping our behavior, Epley and Kumar argue that “Creating an ethical culture thus requires thinking about ethics not simply as a belief problem but also a design problem.” In other words, a company must choose goals and practices that naturally support ethical behavior. The following practices do just that:
Train Employees in Ethical Problem Solving:
In addition to making sure every employee accesses and understands your company’s code of conduct, it is important to provide employees with training that will allow them to apply this knowledge. The Chron. article, “Ways to Promote Ethical Conduct,” by Lynda Moultry Belcher recommends using role play scenarios so that everyone can practice solving problems ethically. The article explains, “The more training and resources you provide, and the greater emphasis you place on being ethical and acting accordingly, the more your staff understands exactly what you expect in the office.”
Make Ethical Practices the Norm:
Making ethical practices the norm starts with the way employees are treated. Employers must ensure that their hiring, evaluation, promotion, and compensation practices are fair and objective and that they are placing reasonable demands on employees if they truly want to be known for their commitment to doing what is right. What motivation would employees have to act ethically on behalf of their company if their company is treating them poorly? In addition to treating all employees fairly, it is important for employers to recognize employees at all levels who exemplify ethical behavior. Routinely highlighting individuals in all kinds of positions throughout the company sends a clear message that all employees are valued for their contributions and commitment to doing what is right. Furthermore, focusing on positive role models as opposed to warning employees with examples of wrongdoers normalizes the good instead of the bad.
Incentivize Ethical Behavior:
Employers can use a variety of incentives to further motivate employees to act ethically. In the Harvard Business Review article discussed above, the authors explain that in addition to monetary incentives, studies show that people are highly motivated by recognition and praise, as well as prosocial incentives (incentives that benefit others in addition to or in place of the individual being rewarded). The article states, “Companies that use prosocial incentives are likely to produce happier, more satisfied, and more loyal employees. An ethical culture not only does good; it also feels good.”
Instituting an Ethics Hotline
Instituting an ethics hotline is a powerful strategy to further encourage ethical behavior. This confidential and anonymous tool allows employees to report unethical behavior, fostering a culture of transparency and accountability. The hotline should be accessible, with clear follow-up procedures, and employees should be trained on its use. Importantly, companies must ensure protection against retaliation for those who use the hotline. This not only empowers employees to voice concerns but also reinforces the company’s commitment to ethical practices.
In summary, promoting workplace ethics requires companies to center their goals and practices around doing what is right for employees, clients, and other stakeholders. This involves not only clearly communicating ethical expectations to all employees but also providing practical tools such as an ethics hotline to support these expectations. The implementation of an ethics hotline, in particular, fosters a culture of transparency and accountability, further strengthening the company’s commitment to high ethical standards. Companies that take these comprehensive steps in promoting ethical practices not only meet and exceed regulatory compliance standards but also attract and retain a loyal customer base due to their reputation for ethical behavior.
Want to know how to respond to unethical practices in the workplace? See our post here.