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How employers can foster ethics at work

Ethics at work

What can supervisors do to ensure that employees behave ethically?

It’s up to management to set clear ethical boundaries, says Michael Smith, who teaches online ethics courses for business programs at University of Phoenix. He notes that employees should never have to guess about what their bosses expect, adding, “[Ethics] should never be a moving target.”

Here are four ways managers can promote good ethics in the workplace:


Communicate the standards.

A supervisor shouldn’t assume that employees will handle moral and ethical dilemmas without guidance. A 2011 survey by the Ethics Resource Center found that 34 percent of employees felt their direct supervisors didn’t behave ethically.

“You have to communicate what your expectations are,” says Alicia Coffie, another online ethics instructor and a public school teacher in Georgia. “You can show you are an ethical leader, but you need to say there are expectations for the organization — like not getting on [your] Facebook® [account] during work hours — and if they aren’t met, there will be some sort of consequence.”


Be consistent in enforcement.

Some managers may be uncomfortable acting as “ethics police.” But Smith, a facilities director at the University of Oregon, says consistency is important when enforcing the rules, as is following through on appropriate disciplinary steps and working with the human resource department, if necessary, when infractions occur.

“Employees might take shortcuts, like skipping a safety policy because it is viewed as a nuisance,” he notes. “But when a person is offered a job, and they agree to work at a company, they can’t arbitrarily decide that the company code of ethics needs to be loosened.”


Provide education on the policies.

Sometimes managers must teach ethics to inexperienced employees who are new to the professional environment.

“Younger employees may not think that it’s a big deal to be doing something other than work, or to be nonproductive,” Coffie says. “Training is very important in that situation, and that training has to be ongoing and consistent. You have to tell them that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.”


Adapt to workplace trends.

Ethical issues tend to evolve, so managers must keep current on matters ranging from social media etiquette to conflicts of interest, and be open to seeking guidance from colleagues, Coffie says. “It’s good to … talk to others who have been in similar situations,” she adds.

Managers also need to understand that no matter how many rules or policies a company puts in place, it’s impossible to ensure that employees will behave ethically 100 percent of the time.

“What I try to emphasize,” Smith says, “is the importance of management to … model the behavior expected of your employees. There often are checks in place to ensure employees are following the rules. But the company and management have the responsibility to educate and make resources available to ensure ethically responsible decisions can be made [by employees] consistently.”

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