Ethical workplace practices are crucial to creating a culture of ethical behavior and strong ethical foundations. But what exactly is it that we mean by ethical workplace behavior or ethical workplace standards? According to organizational psychologists, ethical behavior is the behavior that is aligned with societal norms and expectations. It is also the norm of reciprocity and respect for other people's rights and interests. Individuals who display these behaviors in the right circumstances will be perceived as individuals who are highly responsible, skillful, and trustworthy.
In contrast, behavioral change occurs when an individual deliberately breaks an ethical code, behavior, or workplace rule. When this occurs, the individual ceases to have any awareness of and insures against the consequences of their actions (e.g., the loss of a job, reputation, or ability to gain employment). Changing behavior is a complex process that usually occurs after conscious and subconscious changes occur over time. However, conscious decisions to act ethically can help create a safe and welcoming environment for coworkers and managers to pursue personal goals and increase organizational productivity.
To illustrate how situational awareness and the development of clear expectations can affect ethical behavior, consider a scene from the HBO television show "John Adams". Thomas Jefferson was the first US President and one of the primary architects of the US Constitution. One of the major concerns that he had with the drafting of the Constitution was the lack of separation of powers. As President of the Continental Congress, Jefferson created a system of checks and balances that separated power between the legislative and executive branches of the government. It is with the checks and balances in place that we see today's ethical workplace behaviors.
As a legal matter, one could say that a company setting the standards for ethical workplace culture in its work is in fact setting up a situation in which managers have an ethical responsibility to the law and its employees. In a related context, ethical behavioral managers are concerned with things like employee theft or the illegal promotion of products. Their goal is to ensure that a company does not violate any laws in any way, including the improper promotion of a product. In both cases, an ethical leader will attempt to ensure that the behavior of a kind that would violate applicable laws is not rewarded or condoned by their company.
In order for any company to set up clear standards for its ethical behavior, it must have a framework in which to implement those standards and monitor them. In most cases, this will be done through a formal code of conduct or a policy. However, even without such a policy, a company's core values and ethical practices can be described in a number of ways, and those can often be translated into a set of standards. For example, a company's core values might be to be customer-oriented, to be dedicated to the advancement of science and technology, to have an interest in and dedication to the success of other employees, and to provide a positive working environment. Each of these standards may be a significant part of the way that a company conducts business, but they all begin with the same core values - that everyone in an organization is responsible for their own behaviors and those of others, and that the actions of other will reflect on you as well.
To establish and maintain a desirable ethical behavior code, it is important for managers to make it clear to their subordinates that their actions will have an effect on the values that they share. Doing so can help them avoid taking any actions that would undermine those same values or that are in conflict with the larger objectives of the organization. Managers also need to make sure that they are consistently reminding their employees of the importance of the code of conduct and that they are actively encouraging their people to adhere to those standards. While it can be tempting to give in to the natural tendency of a person to try to "get along," that is not the way to foster cooperation and loyalty within a work environment. A company needs to find a balance between letting people know that their behaviors affect the organization's values and being firm about the consequences of bad behavior.
As a result, managers need to think more about how to get their people to behave more consistently. It may be helpful to have a formalized system for evaluating employee performance or to designate a single person to be in charge of creating and monitoring the company's ethical conduct policy. The point is not to micromanage but to put into place specific steps and mechanisms for dealing with even the most minor ethical breaches. By identifying the most problematic behavior patterns, the managers can develop ways for their people to respond with appropriate managerial leadership skills. This can go a long way toward ensuring that the ethical conduct policies of the company do indeed serve to promote company interests.
Beyond addressing the behavior that gets in the way of good work, however, managers also need to take stock of what their people are doing and whether that behavior is consistent with the norms of the ethical behavior code. While companies can choose to ignore any unethical behavior that their people engage in after all, the damage that can be done to their business in its entirety can be just as devastating. If a company takes the time and trouble to establish and maintain an ethical behavior code, however, it can make a real difference in the kind of results that it experiences from its employees. Managers who are motivated to take this additional step need to think carefully about the methods by which they go about disciplining those workers whose actions do not meet the standards of the ethical code. Doing so will ensure that the company does not lose any of its most important assets, and it can keep the company from falling into the unethical behavior trap.
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