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Would your organization retaliate if you reported the unethical behavior of a popular or valued employee?

Professional CompetenceProfessional Competence requires Self-Responsibility and Management, and it’s built on ethical behavior. Ethical behavior is much more than being nice.

You hear talk about ethics at company meetings, but do most people in your workplace understand what constitutes ethical behavior? Do you? Does your organization have a formal code of ethics? Do people buy into and use the code when the going gets tough? Do you? Are you aware of the ways an ethical code can help – and unethical behavior can hurt – you and your organization?

People sometimes don’t see the value in spending time on ethics because let’s face it, we all know everything in life isn’t fair. But you can make a dent in that mind-set by realizing the benefits that ethical behaviors generate, and by making ethics a habit.

5 things you need to know before you talk to people about ethics at work

Many professions and organizations publish ethical codes for members and employees. An ethical code is a set of principles you can use to help figure out the best course of action in a situation. Ethics is not about doing what is socially acceptable, although what other people feel and want are certainly factors in ethical behavior.

Most people agree that an ethical code is a good thing, or at least they do publicly, but according to a 2021 Global Business Ethics Survey by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, here are five facts that describe how people “experience ethics” in the real world: (Ethics.org. 2021.)

  • Globally, 14 percent of employees reported working in organizations with a strong ethical culture.
  • In 2020, 29 percent of employees reported pressure to compromise standards.
  • Most common types of observed misconduct include favoritism, management lying to employees, and conflicts of interest.
  • In the U.S. and globally, 8 in 10 employees reported misconduct.
  • Retaliation rates have skyrocketed with 79 percent of U.S. employees and 61 percent of global employees reporting they have experienced retaliation.

Clearly, things could be improved.

Ethics doesn’t mean “being nice” and unethical behavior can be costly

If you consider ethics a “sideline” in the blur of managing your day-to-day work concerns, you may not be motivated to take the time to pay attention beyond attending the odd company meeting and hoping for better times.

To get a clearer idea of what I’m talking about in terms of cost, consider the impact on your world if you or the things you care about were at risk due to unethical actions. Then consider your organization. For example, what about the impact on your organization if employees quit because of the organization’s ethics?

Then switch your thinking and realize the costs involved because you aren’t reaping all the benefits associated with ethical behavior. In other words, have you considered the advantages you’re missing when you don’t have an ethical code in your organization?

What are the advantages and benefits of having an ethical code?

An ethical code helps you:

  • Face challenges and solve problems
  • Deal with work-related dilemmas
  • Resolve interpersonal conflicts
  • Make decisions aligned with organizational principles
  • Attract more business
  • Help employees better understand what is expected and rewarded

For instance, look at problem solving and work-related dilemmas. Do you wonder if ethical behavior means you back off and don’t discuss something controversial? The reality is ethical codes call for just the opposite.

Ethics codes encourage people asking questions and seeking facts as opposed to hiding challenges or allowing disagreements to fester. Review and discussion are the best ways to arrive at a conclusion that works for the people involved and the organization, and an ethical code is one of the best tools for managing such conversations. Everyone may not agree with the outcome, but the process will be transparent and honest.

How to make ethics a habit – realize they are the bedrock of good business

The ethics of an organization are the cornerstone of a successful business. Simply put, behaving ethically is good business. Your ethics influence how you treat employees, suppliers, partners, and clients. Of course, good ethics begin at the top. Leadership plays a significant role in promoting organizational ethics and modeling ethical behavior. But no matter your place in an organization, you can have an impact.

In every business, reputation is a non-tangible yet critical asset, and few things have more of an impact on an organization’s reputation than the ethical behavior of its leaders and employees. Reputation drives success or failure, and organizations demonstrate ethics in different ways every day, such as in pricing and service, and interpersonal interactions.

It’s also true that like you, your employees are busy and not everyone gives thought to ethics. Another issue is employees don’t always know what constitutes behavior that is ethical and in alignment with their organization. These are problems where you can make a difference. The more you bring ethics into discussions, the more employees will start to apply ethics in their thinking.

Some organizations might think that having a written code of ethics is enough to guide individual behavior. While it is necessary and a great start, your business reputation comes down to the conduct of those in the organization – how each one behaves, how they model ethical behavior and adhere to the code of ethics. Merely signing a piece of paper that espouses ethics is not enough.

To achieve excellence, ethical behavior must become a habit. People build ethical habits through studying theory and rules, but more importantly, through considering scenarios that allow for reflection on the value of ethics and the direct application in daily life. Bring those scenarios to their attention!

Build Your Competency: Understand ethics and how to benefit from using them

  • Acknowledge ethical dilemmas in your workplace and use them to generate discussion and reflection, and encourage new work habits based on ethics
  • Be mindful of how using an ethical framework can help you make decisions, solve conflicts, and attract and keep more customers and clients
  • Apply ethics in your day-to-day planning, interactions, and decision making.

Read more about it: “The State of Ethics & Compliance in the Workplace: A Look at Global Trends” by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ERC. 2021.) at: https://www.ethics.org/global-business-ethics-survey/

Dr. Wesley Donahue


dr wesley donahue centrestar online ceu hours and coursesI’m Wes Donahue, President of Centrestar, Inc. and I also lead the online graduate program in Organization Development and Change at Penn State University.

Centrestar is a training organization that helps people identify and use the 35 competencies needed to succeed in any industry or profession. Learn more about us at www.centrestar.com

For more information about the 35 competencies, see my book Building Leadership Competence: A Competency-Based Approach to Building Leadership Ability.

Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..