Did You Bring Your Ethics to Work Today?

Find Examples of Failure to Practice Fundamental Workplace Ethics

By Susan M. Heathfield

Think you are a person of integrity and that you bring your highest standards of ethics to your workplace each day? You may reassess your thinking as you explore the topic of workplace ethics in this article.

Despite hundreds of pages of policies, codes of ethics, codes of conduct, organizational values, and carefully defined work environments, company cultures, lapses in workplace ethics occur every day.

Lapses in workplace ethics result from inappropriate officer behavior such as insider stock trading, expense account fraud, sexual harassment, and involvement in conflicts of interest. Lapses in workplace ethics do not need to rise to that level to impact the workplace environment you provide for employees though. Lapses in workplace ethics can occur because of simple issues such as toilet paper, copy machines, and lunch signup lists.

Reputational Compliance

Reputational Compliance

In a nationally important workplace ethics case, Hewlett-Packard company’s, successful CEO, Mark Hurd, (now former H-P CEO), became embroiled in workplace ethics issues. I have no insider knowledge, but the public statement from the company indicated that Mr. Hurd left because he violated the company’s expected standards of conduct.

Cathie Lesjak, H-P’s chief financial officer, who was appointed interim CEO until the company can find a permanent replacement for Mr. Hurd, asked employees “to remain ‘focused’ and said ‘Mark had failed to disclose a close personal relationship he had with the contractor that constituted a conflict of interest, failed to maintain accurate expense reports, and misused company assets.’”

While most of us don’t have as far to fall as Mr. Hurd, and unfortunately, he is not the first high profile executive to bite the dust over personal conduct in recent years, lapses in ethics occur in workplaces every day. You can violate the spoken and unspoken, published and unpublished, code of conduct in your organization without a CEO title and without your actions rising to the level of conflict of interests and questionable expense accounting.

Lapses in Workplace Ethics Drive Policy Development

Policies most frequently exist because some employees are untrustworthy. For example, many in HR debate the effectiveness of a paid time off (PTO) policy versus time off policies that divide available days between personal, sick days, and vacation time off. The only reason these policies exist at all, to define the relationship between employer and employees, is because a few employees took advantage of the employer’s attempts to offer sympathetic time off for legitimate life reasons.

Consequently, employers limited management discretion and decision making about individual employee situations and instituted policies to govern the many. You can build a similar case for most organizational policies. The failure of some employees to practice principled workplace ethical decision making results in policies that cover all employees.

Codes of conduct or business ethics exist to guide the expected behavior of honorable employees, but much of their origination occurred for the same reason as policies. Some employees conducted themselves in ways that were unacceptable to the business.

In today’s workplace, potential charges of unfair treatment, discrimination, favoritism, and hostile work environment replace much management discretion. The many suffer for the few and sometimes, your best employees get caught in the equal treatment trap. At best, time off policies, to use just one example, require organization time and energy – hundreds of hours of tracking and accounting.

Everyday Workplace Ethics

Few employees will undergo the challenges experienced by Mr. Hurd and other senior company executives in their practice of workplace ethics. But, all employees have the opportunity daily to demonstrate the core and fiber of who they are as people. Their values, integrity, beliefs, and character speak loudly through the behavior that they engage in at work.

Lapses in the practice of workplace ethics come in all sizes, large and small, far reaching and close to home. Some ethical lapses affect individual employees. Other ethical lapses affect whole work groups, and in particularly egregious instances, such as Mr. Hurd’s, whole companies and all of the stakeholders in the company suffer as a result.

Some failures to practice everyday workplace ethics are invisible. No one but you will ever know about the decision that you made, but each lapse in ethics affects your essence as an individual, as an employee, and as a human being. Even the smallest lapse in workplace ethics diminishes the quality of the workplace for all employees.

Examples of Lapses in Workplace Ethics

Each failure to practice value-based workplace ethics affects your self image and what you stand for far more than it affects your coworkers. But, the affect of your behavior on your fellow employees is real, tangible, and unpredictable, too.

Following are examples of employees failing to practice fundamental workplace ethics. The solution? Change the behavior, of course. You may never have thought of these actions as problems with ethical behavior but they are. And, all of them affect your coworkers in negative ways.

Signs that you know that your actions are substandard? You make up excuses, give yourself reasons, and that little voice of your conscience, that chatters away in your head, tries to convince your ethical self that your lapse in workplace ethics is okay. Right. Perhaps a slightly different view will help you see the world with new eyes?

Here are sixteen examples of employees failing to practice fundamental workplace ethics. As you review them, prepare to add your own examples.

    • You are using the company restroom and use up the last roll of toilet paper, or the last piece of paper towel. Without thought for the needs of the next employee, you go back to work rather than addressing the issue.

    • You call in sick to your supervisor because it’s a beautiful day and you decide to go to the beach, or shopping, or…

    • You engage in an affair with a coworker while married because no one at work will ever know, you think you’re in love, you think you can get away with it, your personal matters are your own business, the affair will not impact other employees or the workplace, yada, yada, yada… Right.

    • You place your dirty cup in the lunchroom sink. With a guilty glance around the room, you find no one watching and quickly leave the lunchroom.

    • Your company sponsors events, activities, or lunches and you sign up to attend and fail to show. Conversely, you fail to sign up and show up anyway. You make the behavior worse when you say that you took the appropriate action so someone else must have screwed up.

    • You tell potential customers that you are the vice president in charge of something. When they seek out the company VP at a trade show, you tell your boss that the customers must have made a mistake.

    • You work in a restaurant in which wait staff tips are shared equally and you withhold a portion of your tips from the common pot before the tips are divided.

    • You have sex with a reporting staff member and then provide special treatment to your flame. How about you just have sex, period? No impact? Ha!

    • You take office supplies from work to use at home because you justify, you often engage in company work at home, or you worked extra hours this week, and so on.

    • You spend several hours a day using your work computer to shop, check out sports scores, pay bills, do online banking, and surf the news headllines for the latest celebrity news and political opinions.

    • You use up the last paper in the communal printer and you fail to replace paper leaving the task to the next employee who uses the printer.

    • You hoard supplies in your desk drawer so you won’t run out while other employees go without supplies they need to do their work.

    • You overhear a piece of juicy gossip about another employee and then repeat it to other coworkers. Whether the gossip is true or false is not the issue. Trust me.

    • You tell a customer or potential customer that your product will perform a particular action when you don’t know if it will and you didn’t check with an employee who does.

    • You allow a part that you know does not meet quality standards leave your work station and hope your supervisor or the quality inspector won’t notice.

  • You claim credit for the work of another employee, or you fail to give public credit to a coworker’s contribution, when you share results, make a presentation, turn in a report or in any other way appear to be the sole owner of a work product or results.

This list provides examples of ways in which employees fail to practice workplace ethics. It is not comprehensive as hundreds of additional examples are encountered by employees in workplaces daily. Won’t you take a moment to add your own examples of lapses in workplace ethics that you’ve experienced below?



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