Unethical behaviour in the workplace is no news anymore, both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, we only see the highlights of top companies’ employees making the headlines for engaging in an unethical situation. Still, the cumulative damages caused by the seemingly small companies’ employees are just as bad.
“There is no problem without a solution”, so goes a common saying, but understanding the causes of the problem helps provide the solution.
What are some of the causes for unethical behaviour in the workplace?
Employees’ ethics at work are driven mainly by individual, issue-specific, and environmental factors. It is imperative to address them all.
Unethical choices are more likely from people with specific personal characteristics, views and values. Overwhelmingly, self-interest drives these employees. For example, they manipulate others for their gain and fail to see the connection between their actions and outcomes. They believe that circumstances force ethical choices. They obey authority figures’ unethical directives and act merely to avoid punishment.
Even good people cannot always resist an opportunity to take advantage of a situation sometimes. We often hear about trusted employees in smaller organizations whose actions undergo little scrutiny and eventually use this lack of oversight to steal funds or engage in other forms of unethical behaviour to further their interests. Some issues are more likely to lead to bad choices, and some employees are more likely to act unethically when they don’t see their action causing harm.
Unethical choices are more likely to occur when the organization encourages individualistic behaviour rather than doing what is best for other employees, customers, and the entire organization. For example, the performance management system might reward individual bottom-line achievement without considering the steps.
As we advance, let’s look at the factors that trigger employees (both good and bad) to behave unethically in the workplace.
Solutions for Preventing Unethical Behaviour in a workplace
Organizations can take several steps to limit the likelihood of good employees behaving unethically with the following:
- Train employees to recognize the impact that misconduct has on their co-workers and the entire organization. Cite specific examples that link the behaviour to the harm it causes.
- Ensure that all managers weigh the ethical consequences of their decisions because employees are quick to notice a facade. The failure to “walk the walk” will send a message that there is nothing wrong with unethical behaviour.
- Develop and enforce a robust code of conduct that clearly defines what constitutes acceptable and inappropriate behaviour.
- Focus on the positive aspects of ethical conduct and consider developing an incentive system that rewards employees who exhibit exemplary behaviour.
In conclusion, leaders must accept we hold them to higher standards than others. They must be extra vigilant about not just their intentions but also how others might interpret their behaviour. While they can’t control every possible misinterpretation, leaders should carefully choose how they react to stressful situations and poor performance. When required, leaders must demonstrate how prudent they are in the face of controversy and how receptive they are to bad news.
Above all, even in what might be considered the smallest “white lie,” ethical leaders are careful not to signal that hypocrisy is ok.