Importance of Ethics in the Workplace

Tue, Apr 3, 2012


Creating an ethical workplace is an important part of an overall business plan, but perhaps not entirely for the reasons you might suspect. While it’s certainly true that business owners want to foster an environment in which behaviors that are illegal and damaging to the company are frowned on (theft, fraud, overt sexual harassment, and so on), there are any number of gray areas that may do no direct damage to the company, but still they are bad for business. So if you are uncertain about why you should uphold a code of standards and practices when it comes to the murky waters of ethical behavior in the workplace, here are a few reasons to create a clear policy and stick to it.

Suppose your employees are fond of telling racially charged jokes. It may seem like innocent fun, and in general it is not considered illegal (unless of course somebody complains that they feel harassed and nothing is done to correct the situation). No harm, no foul, right? In truth, this sort of black humor (and any other type of language or action that degrades other groups of people) should not be allowed, whether employees complain or not. For one thing, such displays of negativity and crass language are inappropriate and unprofessional. But you may be tempted to let it slide simply because it’s all in good fun and if it keeps your employees happy you can’t see the harm. However, it could be doing a lot more damage than you imagine.

Suppose a client or vendor overhears this display of camaraderie and takes offense. You could lose sales or business partners over it. Or what if an off-color joke targets the heritage of certain employees? If they complain you will be forced to take action against the offending parties in order to avoid legal hassles yourself. Then your entire staff will be unhappy and off-balance. The complainants could face ostracization or even harassment and threats because they reported on their coworkers. Even worse, they could remain silent and simply suffer through the denigrating comments. Either way you are left dealing with a partially or fully demoralized workforce, which is very bad for your business. So an unethical activity that seemed like innocent fun has suddenly become a very big problem indeed.

Of course, that’s just one of many possible scenarios. The truth is that allowing any kind of unethical activity to take root, even in the smallest measure, can be damaging to your business over time. Even if it seems unimportant, it can lead to bad feelings amongst the ranks, which may undermine the confidence and comfort of your employee base. And you’ll find that things that start small quickly snowball into full-blown issues that can compromise your company’s ability to operate. What begins as fun at another’s expense could lead to very serious legal issues concerning workplace harassment, civil rights, consumer rights, fraud, theft, violence, or even other criminal activity. If you think that sounds farfetched you are fooling yourself. It only takes one misstep to spiral down the rabbit hole of possible ethical concerns. As a responsible business owner, it behooves you to nip any potentially unethical behaviors in the bud before they lead to serious damage.

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