Supporting An Ethical Workplace

Supporting An Ethical Workplace

One of my consistently favorite areas of workplace [and human] behavior to read about and dive into is around ethical practice competencies and general issues surrounding workplace ethics. There is consistently an abundance of information around how absent it is in workplace cultures and leadership behaviors.

Part of the reason I am completely obsessed with this topic is that there is SO much information on what ethical business practices are, and how they are defined. The other reason I am fascinated by this topic is because – to me – behaving in an honest way, with a high-level of integrity and transparency is [and should be – always] the norm.  As a leader, I pathologically possess a commitment to the common “good” – making the right choices that support growth, socially accepted behavior, happiness, and a harmonious – but clear and firm – conclusion to issues and that the decision is aligned with the organization policy and employee well-being. It is both bizarre and disheartening that this topic needs to be covered in so many areas in business that govern appropriate workplace behavior [i.e., policies, codes of ethics, codes of conduct, organizational values, and carefully defined work environments/company cultures].

It is staggering how frequently lapses in workplace ethics occur inside almost all industries. Just look at the recent disaster with Bill O’Reilly at FOX. We can have all the rules and policies we want to document in place – but, at the end of the day an organization, the individuals inside the organization, and the reality of the way THEY really work define the company ethics internally and to the public.

These lapses in ethical behavior manifest themselves in so many different ways inside the business world. Some of the more recent examples I have spoken with colleagues about – as well as read about have been:

  • Expense fraud [either people padding their accounts or companies not reimbursing expenses to their employees]
  • Sexual harassment
  • Political Deviance [Lying & Assigning blame]
  • Lack of personal accountability
  • Conflicts of Interest
  • Creating a culture of inaccessibility/unapproachability by ‘managers’ for their people [aka: I’m SO busy]
  • Deliberately awful communication – lack of candor or transparency

How These Issues Negatively Impact The Work Environment [& Brand Reputation]

I have said it before and I will say it again – many employee handbooks are moldy, outdated, and cater to the lowest common denominator in the workplace. This challenge is further exacerbated when big ethical lapses drive additional policy development and stall any forward momentum the organization may have. This continues the practice of the publicizing and implementation of juvenile and “big brother-esqe” policies. Policies that  are forcing, defining, and creating a parameter around a specific relationship between the employer and the employees.

Only 15% of Americans trust leaders to tell the truth – 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer

This creates challenges as employers are forced to mandate and manage what ethical and reasonable behavior by employees looks like. Depending on the environment and the company’s executive officers, these policies can be so strict and inflexible that it critically limits innovation, decision making, and leadership discretion, turning once valuable and engaged employees into – essentially – “sheeple“.

It is the unfortunate, but very real, political/ethical deviance on the part the few employees who refuse to practice principled workplace behavior that results in policies that cover and confine every employee.

In 2013, 41% of U.S. workers said they observed unethical or illegal misconduct on the job.  –Ethics Resource Center’s 2013 National Business Ethics Survey.

In a 2003 survey by Wirthlin Worldwide, 80% of people said they decide to buy a firm’s goods or services partly on their perception of its ethics. – Josephson Institute Reports

One of the biggest workplace ironies is that the most deviant and unethical employees are the first to make companies have to consider/deal with and invest in fighting issues such as, complaints of unfair/discriminatory treatment and hostile work environment complaints. Company policies, codes of conduct, company values, and company ethics evolved to define a company’s philosophy and purpose. But when employees or organizations conduct themselves in a way that destroys trust and erodes relationships – these constricting and damaging practices must be documented and enforced. The masses suffer for the few who are unable to work within socially appropriate norms and who function without a moral compass or with severe lack of personal accountability.

Signs Of An Ethical Workplace

  • HONESTY: In order for employees to behave in an honest/ethical way, the company needs to support a culture of values that include a high-level of transparency with their employees. Company leadership/executives in ethical workplaces are honest about the state of the business. They are honest with team members when delivering performance feedback. They are honest in all interactions with customers and respectful in their dealings. By company leadership behaving in an honest and consistently ethical way they will inspire the majority of their employees to do the same and in doing so encourage a culture of trust and respect.
Lack of ethics programs increases misconduct. In one survey, 71% of employees who saw honesty applied rarely or never in their organization had seen misconduct in the past year, compared with 52% who saw honesty applied only occasionally, and 25% who saw it frequently. The figures were similar for respect and trust. – Josephson Institute Reports
  • INTEGRITY: A company that values and displays integrity will do the right thing even when under pressure not to. They also refuse to gloss over detail or the truth. Being authentic requires a tremendous amount of courage, social responsibility, and self-awareness in both organizations and individuals.
  • ACCOUNTABILITY: There is a big initiative in many organizations to support an elevated culture of accountability in the workplace. Accountability means that people or organizations make decisions that are in the best interest of the company purpose, they own their decisions, and – if it a wrong decision is made – they learn from it, acknowledge it, and quickly address and repair the residual fall out. Business decisions/changes are communicated and the rationale behind them is explained thoroughly and the spectrum of reactions is accepted.

  • STRONG LEADERSHIP: Leaders in these ethical workplaces display all of these qualities, consistently. They are the role models for the Code of Conduct and have strong characters that are defined by the most honorable qualities. These leaders set the example and convey a positive example for others, both internally and externally.

Fortunately, as consumers, through social media we all have an inside [and real-time] window into almost every workplace. Additionally we have the ability to network with people inside organizations to have a current perspective of the most ethical workplaces and the not-so-ethical workplaces.

The Benefits Of An Ethical Workplace

  • Ethical Practices Provide A Moral Compass During Turbulent Times: Lots of industries are experiencing change right now. Ethical workplaces – however – are keeping employees in “the loop”, preparing them for changes, and mitigating damage through open and honest communication. Attention to ethical practices is critical during times of change and/or crisis in business. People will be more inclined to support change and challenge if they believe in the company and the leadership of the company and understand they are working toward a common goal.
  • Aligned Ethical Practices Support Collaboration and Productivity: Employee alignment around ethical behaviors that support the organizations values and culture draws people together around the vision of the organization. Ongoing attention to, and dialogue around, values in the workplace builds openness, a focus on solutions, and community…these are all critical to employee engagement and forward momentum in the workplace.
  • Ethical Practices Keep Organizations Honest: It’s all well and good to have posters up on the walls and pages in the handbook outlining ethical practices but if the organization doesn’t live and breathe truly ethical practices surrounding policies then they have to be – and can be – held accountable. Forever21, a retailer that on paper supports and values diversity and inclusion was just served with a lawsuit in California for implementing a policy that their employees can only speak English in the workplace. It is an unfortunate reality that poor ethical practices lead to beneficial and practical updates in the workplace through formal litigation.
  • Ethics Programs Support Strategic Planning, Diversity Management, and [In Today’s World] Sustainability: Ethics programs identify and support organizational values and ensure organizational behaviors are aligned with those values. This effort includes recording and communicating those critical values, developing policies & procedures to align beneficial and crucial behaviors with the organization’s values, and then educating all levels of employees about the policies. This overall process is important to several other programs in the workplace that require behaviors to be aligned with values, including productivity, strategic planning, and a diversity/inclusion strategy. Executives – who seek ethics as truly important – assign high priority to certain operating values, i.e., trust, performance, reliability, communication, and transparency. An ethics management focus is highly necessary for managing strategic values as they relate to expanding market share and reducing costs associated with unethical behavior(s).  Ethics programs are absolutely needed to effectively managing diversity. Diversity is so very much more than the color of people’s skin or their language – it’s acknowledging different values and perspectives and are critical to any global organization’s ability to grow a robust and sustainable business. Diversity programs require recognizing and applying a diverse – but fair and consistent – practice around organizational values and people’s perspectives – these activities are the genesis of a sound and functional ethics program.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

View all posts by

4 thoughts on “Supporting An Ethical Workplace

  1. A superb topic to “be obsessed” with Beth. The numbers you cite (80% of people said they decide to buy a firm’s goods or services partly on their perception of its ethics) clearly show the bottom line value of a strong ethics and integrity culture that must flow from the top down. No one wants their teams transformed into “sheeple” via draconian policies to compensate for bad hiring decisions. Ethics and integrity must be the core of the culture with any deviations addressed swiftly and consistently.
    (P.S. – best of success on your SHRM-CP certification)

  2. Ms. Boyd, Thank you for your excellent article.
    I was employed by JCPenney and witnessed numerous instances of unethical behavior on all levels.

    What is interesting is that I had worked for JCPenney on two separate occasions.
    The first time I worked for JCP, I had identified/reported significant issues, one negatively impacting public safety, and also employee payroll “improprieties”. In both of those instances, after much pressure from me, the issues were resolved in an ethical manner.

    Notably, my having reported those instances did not have a negative impact on my employment. I was even offered a promotion months later when a superior retired.

    The second, most recent time I worked for JCPenney, there were numerous instances of employee assaults, and consumer and sales tax scams that were covered-up. In fact, after investigation, the consumer pricing fraud and/or scams or deceptive practices, were reported by a senior JCPenney auditor to be company-wide.

    My having reported those matters as was required by the JCP Code of “Ethics” in place at the time, lead to my being harassed, degraded and retaliated against by JCPenney management.

    All the while, nothing was being done to right JCPenney’s financial wrongs against consumers.

    Even JCP CEO Ron Johnson was communicating with me over these matters. However, Mr. Johnson was “on his way out” and was not able to help in any way. Former JCP CEO Ullman replaced outgoing CEO Johnson. Evidence proves CEO Ullman was fully aware of what was going on, but he failed to intervene.

    Once it was reported by multiple sources that my superior, a regional manager, (Bob L. currently still employed by JCP), had stated he wanted me to be, “as uncomfortable as possible”, it was clear my days at JCP were numbered and soon I would no longer be able to apply pressure to right the wrongs within the framework of JCP’s Code of “Ethics”.

    It was after that, after exhausting all internal remedies, that I went public on NBC’s Today Show.
    After the interview aired, I was immediately terminated. JCP mounted an unsuccessful attempt to deny my unemployment claim by swearing under oath, first one reason, then later a completely different reason for my termination. This is all well documented.

    The reason your article moved me is that JCPenney, more than any other national retailer, wears it’s ethics on it’s sleeve. Even recently JCPenney is using deceptive business practices to try to trick trusting consumers as it continues it’s aggressive promotion of, actually exploitation of, the “Golden Rule”.

    It is a clear case of “ethical bait ‘n switch” at JCPenney.

    I am sorry if I rambled on. It’s just that your article spoke to me very personally.
    JCPenney could learn a lesson or two from you!

    Bob Blatchford
    JCPenney Whistle-Blower

    1. Wow! Wow! Wow! Bob, thank you so much for sharing. I just searched this story on Google – so interesting! Your experience – unfortunate though it is – is such a perfect example of what happens when organizations don’t practice what they preach. The fact that they attempted to take legal action against you when you identified and articulated ethical lapses is…stunning! Again, thank you so much for sharing your story! ~Elizabeth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *