Office ethics

According to Management Today magazine, two in three employees say they lie to their boss. Whose responsibility is it to maintain ethical standards in the workplace?

There is little doubt that a company’s ethics are becoming ever more important in the way it is viewed by its investors, its employees and its customers. Two years ago Dow Jones launched the Sustainability Group Index to chart the top 10% of socially responsible companies in response to increasing interest in ethical investment. In January 2001, a report by the Industrial Society revealed that 82% of UK professionals would refuse to work for a company whose values they doubted, and almost all of those polled (99%) cared whether or not their employers were socially responsible.

Green policies, fair trade and fair treatment of labour are all outward signs of an ethical company. But who influences the ethics of a company? Are principles taught from the top down? Many companies seem to believe so, with strict ethical codes informing employees of their expected behaviour in the workplace. Anecdotal evidence suggests this works in some cases, but not in others. Central to its efficacy is the role of senior management. David Collins, vice-chairman of Johnson and Johnson, practised what he preached in 1982 when the contaminated batch of the company’s Tylenol capsules caused several deaths in the USA. Although only required to recall the bottles in the contaminated batch, Collins thought it right to recall the entire product line. Judgment calls like that not only display an outward virtue, but also foster integrity throughout the chain of command.

American studies have found that a manager’s behaviour, ethical or unethical, often proves the model for that of their employees. A good relationship between employer and employee is crucial for setting the standard in the office. This is probably because conflicts of interest are less likely to arise if each feels they can trust the other. For example, if an employer regularly expects long hours from their workers, they may be more understanding of the odd personal phone call or email. A survey by Management Today discovered that female managers were more likely to be lenient in their approach to ‘unethical’ behaviour, often because they were more willing to consider its context.

Of course, the more trust an employer invests in a person, the more the onus falls on the individual to regulate their own actions. Inappropriate use of the internet while at work, for instance, can be tackled with preventive software or monitoring, but many companies opt out of ‘big-brother’ policies which are themselves considered morally dubious. It is very easy, if you work in a large organisation, to imagine that your mid-afternoon surf, or the sicky you pull after a big night out, is of no consequence. Those working for a small company are more aware of the cost of such peccadilloes. Lost labour time, minor fiddles on expenses and phone bills can add up. Neither is the impact of such actions merely financial – a lax attitude can have knock-on effects to the honesty and morale of colleagues. The financial sector is a good example of an arena in which small-time crookery can proliferate into major scandal – witness the Nick Leeson affair.

So what if you are the shining light of your office but know of other, murkier dealings among your colleagues? Perhaps they have taken some software home with them ‘since no-one else is going to use it’, or maybe they have told your boss more than one little white lie. Whistleblowing is an incredibly unpopular option; according to Management Today’s survey, more than two-thirds of staff would not rat on a colleague, mostly because they are worried about upsetting colleagues and consider it ‘none of their business’. There are certainly good arguments for and against a whistleblowing strategy, and people should definitely be very certain of their facts before making an accusation. Any such approach to a manager or to the HR department should also be made in strictest confidence – some companies have even installed confidential phonelines for the purpose. Objectivity is also key when presenting an ethical problem to management, according to Constance Davies, ethics counsellor at Dimeling Schreiber & Park, an equity firm. ‘Dwelling on reality rather than the frustration of the situation will foster an environment in which solutions can be found,’ she says.

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