Leading with workplace ethics at the forefront

Workplace ethics are about how your organisation defines its values. Here’s how to lead with your morals

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Organisation News Daily

Andrew Selepak, an educator at the University of Florida and director of its MAMC Social Media programme, is unequivocal in his definition of moral choices. “Ethical dilemmas arise when you have to choose between two good choices,” he said.

According to Robert Foehl, executive in residence for organisational law and ethics at Ohio University, before an organisation can pare down an ethical dilemma to two options, it must make an important decision. “The first thing an organisation needs to do is establish what its values are in relation to society,” says Robert. In other words, how an organisation defines good, moral principles in society will colour its ethical code.

Workplace ethics and leadership

Leaders don’t just establish ethical standards in an organisation – they must also demonstrate them. “The ethical standards of an organisation are top-down and bottom-up, and the employer sets the example,” Andrew explains. “If an employer does not act ethically, that trickles down to the bottom of the organisation.”

Leaders can not only set the organisation’s ethical standards by creating a code of ethics, but also through their management style. This includes:

  • sending appropriate messages;
  • remaining visibly on topic;
  • behaving in ways that match the organisation’s stated ethical intentions.

“[There is] no meaningful way for an organisation to act ethically unless leadership does so first,” Robert insists. “Leaders can’t just lead by example, or just by talking about [ethics]. Actions plus words demonstrating the value of ethics is how leadership affects the ethics of the group.”

To create a moral environment, organisational heads need to consider both their formal and informal behaviours. Formal behaviours are what they say, while informal behaviours are the actions taken by an organisation.

“[An organisation] must have both if it hopes to create an ethical workplace environment,” the lack of which will lead to ethical lapses, Roberts says.

Ethical personality types

Not everyone’s concept of ethics is the same. Some people adhere rigidly to the rules set out by management, while others have their own, internal, moral compass that guides them.

“We all have an innate ethic sense that lets us know the right thing to do, but we don’t always follow it,” said Mark Pastin, an ethics consultant and author of Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).

Employees may go along with something they think is unethical because they fear the consequences of raising the issue, he points out. People can be broadly categorised into four ethical personality types. In defining these four types, Mark explains that each one will handle workplace ethics differently.

  • The conformist: this employee follows rules rather than questioning authority figures and tends to do things by the book. One might think this ethical type could be counted on to always do the right thing, but the conformist might look the other way if leaders are acting unethically. This is because they tend to view managers as people to be obeyed, no matter what. The conformist will run into work-related ethical conflicts unless their organisation has a set of rigid rules, and well-defined consequences for not following them.
  • The navigator: when confronted with a situation in which people are behaving unethically, navigators rely on their innate sense of ethics to guide their actions, even if these decisions aren’t easy. This ethical type has a generally sound moral compass, giving the navigator the flexibility to make choices – even unpopular ones. The navigator’s moral sense imbues them with qualities of leadership, and others learn to respect and count on them. They succeed in most organisations and will leave one that is unethical. 
  • The negotiator: negotiators try to make up the rules as they go along. When faced with a sketchy situation, such as a co-worker drinking on their lunch hour, the negotiator might take a wait-and-see attitude to see if the incident affects their job in any way. For example, they may wait to see if the drinking worsens, or anyone else notices. Negotiators will encounter ethics-related trouble if their jobs require them to exercise judgment without guidelines, because they change the rules according to what seems easiest at the time.
  • The wiggler: the wiggler doesn’t give a lot of thought to what is right, instead taking the route that’s most advantageous for them. For example, wigglers may lie to appease a supervisor but refuse to lie again if they sense that others are beginning to suspect them. Wigglers are mostly motivated by self-interest – getting on a manager’s good side, scoring a better deal for themselves or avoiding conflict. They often run into trouble when others sense they dodge ethical issues to protect their own interests. 

“Most ethical issues that arise in the work environment can be solved if raised in a timely manner,” Mark told Organisation News Daily. “The problem is that many people avoid speaking in terms of ethical concerns; welcome disagreement and controversy in the office to foster a more ethical work environment.”

Educating employees on the code of ethics

There is no time like onboarding for educating new appointees about the organisation’s code of ethics, advises James Bailey, professor of leadership at George Washington University. Moreover, this process should be both formal and explicit, he says. Story examples are a fantastic way to connect with a person perusing the code, so James advises organisations to use them.

He also suggests informing an employee about organisational culture in relation to ethics during the interview process. That way, he says, the “employee is immediately apprised of what is expected.”

An organisation’s code of ethics should be in writing and respected, he adds “A code not adhered to is a shell.” However, a code of conduct cannot possibly cover every ethical consideration in detail. “The values [of an organisation] are its North Star”, but not an instruction manual, says Robert.

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