Ethics in Business
What happened to ethics in business? I know this is a loaded question. In my career spanning over 20 years, I have personally seen or heard of many bad decisions made by employees.
Of course ethics, defined as the set of rules or standards governing a person’s conduct, is up for interpretation by every individual. Because of the gray area surrounding ethics, many organizations have set in place a fluid code of ethics. I use the word fluid since many companies know society and technology change constantly. For this reason, an organization may find itself needing to update its code of ethics on a regular basis due to potentially new ethical violations.
I have heard of or seen many bad ethical decisions through the years. Here are some typical ethical codes set by organizations and examples I or my colleagues witnessed which violate these codes:
1. Conflict of Interest: This is when employees of an organization allow their connections to unethically influence their business practices. Many companies require their employees to conduct business in a fair and impartial manner. An example of personal conflict of interest would be a manager of a non-profit organization, who purchases items at a higher cost from businesses where his friends and family members work, instead of getting bids.
2. Gifts and Gratitudes: This is when a person accepts a gift which their company constitutes has a higher value than allowed and may influence the company’s decisions of purchasing. I have seen whole departments taken out to dinner by sales reps who receive the organization’s business in return. Many companies have added to their code of ethics in this area by stating that any employee, who procures goods and services (purchases), cannot accept any item of value over a small specialty item like an inexpensive pen or key chain.
3. Behavioral Conduct During Work or at a Company-Sponsored Event: Often managers set the standard by which their employees conduct their behavior. We’ve all heard of a version of a story when a manager who drinks too much in front of his subordinates. I’ve heard of a manager who drank too much at an organization-sponsored trip then walked out in front of moving traffic to stop it, all the while his subordinates watched. Can you imagine the talk after that incident around the company?
4. Protection of Sensitive Information/Confidentiality: I have to say I personally have not had witnessed much violation in this area. I worked with confidential information most of my career through client databases. This was highly valued and protected information. I do recall, however, on a few occasions stopping people from telling me confidential employee information, such as disciplinary actions, which I had no right of knowing.
5. Personal Use of Organization’s Assets: This is defined as borrowing or using assets like office equipment or corporate credit cards inappropriately. I know of people who borrowed an organization’s tents, tools, corporate cars, etc. for personal uses, some of these employees were let go for these actions. I know a few managers who didn’t think twice when they took their friends out on golf outings or to restaurants on their companies’ expense. (I personally feel guilty if I find my company’s 25 cent pen in my purse.)
6. Others: There are many other unethical practices such as stealing, being under the influence while at work, sexual harassment which can include dating a subordinate and racial discrimination.
How do you know if something is unethical so you don’t jeopardize your job? Here are some tips:
a. Ask if you are not sure. This can save your job.
b. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t ethical.
c. Anything unlawful is automatically unethical.
d. Ask yourself: Is it fair and honest? What would others think of my actions? How would my actions look to the public if they read it in the press?
e. Check your corporate code of ethics. If your organization does not have a standard, create one.