Meltdown of Workplace Ethics

I recently received an email from an administrative professional expressing dismay at how her office was experiencing a meltdown of workplace ethics.

Dear Nan,

I am witnessing a meltdown in the ethical standards of my office of about 25 people. It’s like everyone has caught the same virus: the selfish, self-centered bug. Everyone seems to be stealing, lying, and generally disrespecting each other. I love my job and I can’t give it up with losing seniority and my shot at a great pension. What can I do to turn this situation around? Can just one person make a difference? Do I quit or ride it out? Or can you suggest something constructive for me to do? Don’t suggest I set an example. I tried that and got played for the fool and the sap! What can I do to turn this cesspool into a swimming pool?

– Agonizing in Auburn

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said: “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then, I realized I was somebody!” Agonizing in Auburn feels alone and disconnected from her workplace community. Who are these people, she wonders, who can behave in such unethical ways? She also wonders can one person make any real difference if he or she wants to improve the ethical culture of an office? The answer is yes.

The ethical office is an organizational culture that fosters mutual respect, trust, and honest communication among coworkers, customers, and vendors. The term is gaining usage in current business vernacular and the concept is becoming another means for achieving competitive advantage in the marketplace. Companies are seeing the link between healthy profits and cultures that foster ethics in every office and at every workstation and loading dock.

It’s easy to predict the results of management without secure ethical footings. Persistent ethical dilemmas cripple service, morale, recruitment, and innovation. Left unresolved, ethical dilemmas cause an invisible, insidious drain on the company’s productivity and profitability. Consider the problems caused by lies, duplicity, theft, illicit behavior, and harassment. Is this the kind of corporate culture that attracts customers? Retains superior employees? Builds profits?

Office Ethics Is Everyone’s Problem

Office ethics are for everyone, not just upper management and obvious victims. All respondents to this dilemma said someone in this position could and should be sufficiently empowered to take action to remedy the situation. Action should start with a frank conversation with your supervisor about anything you are concerned about, according to Myrna Thompson at Pacific Bell. A few respondents recommend that, if all else fails, the writer should find another job, but only as a last resort.

“I would suggest talking openly with your supervisor/manager. If they don’t listen or are a part of the problem, go up the ladder,” says Norma Kasinger, secretary at LaPorte Hospital and Health Services in LaPorte, Indiana. “If your supervision team doesn’t want to deal with these issues, suggest that they assign a team leader to help. I believe one person can make a difference.”

Why don’t more people try to build an ethical office culture? Why do they give up at the first sign of resistance or conflict? Why are they so concerned about pleasing people and keeping everyone from feeling the least bit uncomfortable? It’s high time to debunk some of the myths that keep people from taking action and standing up for what they know is right.


“I’m the only one who sees what’s going on, and I’m the only one who cares.”


This is highly doubtful. Unethical behavior is costly in lost productivity, public relations points, and hard-earned profits. You may have some silent observers at the moment but people do notice and people do care. They are simply waiting for someone else to be first, to be a leader. “I’m guessing there might be several other consciences in your company, other than yourself, who want a better work environment—even if they have not openly declared themselves,” writes Lorrie Prest of Medical Device Consultants Inc. in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. “You will soon realize you have undercover assistants as soon as they recognize your own determination, concern, and sincerity.”


“What others do is none of my concern.”


Yes, it is! No office professional can be successful with an isolationist, blinders-on, I’ll-just-do-my-job attitude.


“It’s not by job to police my boss and/or coworkers.”


Yes, it is! If you care about your job, your company, and your reputation as a professional, you should be concerned with maintaining the ethical standards that work for your office. Most executives appreciate and value the tactful reminders and reinforcements they receive from their support staff.


“I can trust my boss to always be fair (or unfair).”


Wrong! Bosses are human, sometimes wise and sometimes clueless. Generalizing about how your boss always thinks or acts is self-limiting and leaves no possibility for positive change. Accept that there may be times when you will have to talk through some thorny ethical decisions. You can prepare for those discussions by cultivating an open, free-flowing communication style with your boss.


“I can trust my company to always be fair (or unfair).”


Wrong again! The “company” is a neutral, abstract entity that cannot care about your sense of right and wrong; it doesn’t have feelings, a sense of justice, a memory, or even a conscience. But the company isn’t a faceless, nameless entity that runs itself; it’s an association of real people who generally make the best ethical decisions they can. Who are the people running the place? Can you talk to them or talk to others who can talk to them? Every organization has leaders, formal and informal, who can influence the corporate culture.


“I have to do what I’m told to keep my job.”


This is probably the most self-defeating myth of all. Yes, your boss has more power than you do, but that doesn’t mean you have no power at all. Assert yourself and speak up with your best ideas and alternative approaches wherever possible. Look for a reasonable middle ground.

No one can empower you; you empower yourself. Being empowered means you know you have a choice—a choice to change, improve, or leave. You always have the choice of resigning and walking away from the unethical atmosphere you find yourself in. But it’s unfortunate when an office professional says he left a firm due to the unethical behavior of the supervisor. In other words, that assistant had to leave a good job with benefits, salary, friends, and reputation and start over just because of some ethically impaired manager. Someone like Agonizing in Auburn is better served by taking on the challenge of building an ethical atmosphere. Sound impossible? It can be done.

Take a Stand For Your Ethical Office

Following are eight simple guidelines that will help you take a stand for your ethical office:

  1. You cannot control what other people do, but you can control how you react to what other people do.
  2. Believe that you can make a difference. Commit yourself to being involved in the process of creating the ethical office. Office ethics are about what gets done and how something gets done. You are a central player in these office proceedings, and thus, you are entitled to have a voice.
  3. Be a good example. A good example can have a powerful effect on the work environment. Your sense of what is right and what is wrong is important to share. “Continue to be yourself and hold your values high,” says Judy Cousino CPS, executive secretary at La-Z-Boy Inc. in Monroe, Michigan. “Although ingoing the situation around you may seem intolerable, keep your own standards and ignore what goes on around you. You will not only keep your sanity, but you will also provide an example to everyone else.

    Being a good example means being consistent. Ethical standards are not relative. They do not ebb and flow, changing from circumstance to circumstance. You can’t just be ethical on occasion. Either you are or you aren’t.

    Agonizing in Auburn wrote that she had a poor experience when she tried to set an example. That’s unfortunate, but she should consider how she is presenting herself when she sets an example. Being aloof or self righteous will, of course, alienate you from your coworkers even more.

  4. Never give the impression you don’t care that improper actions are taking place. Never look the other way or pretend to do so. Willa Winston CPS at the Environment Protection Agency in Chicago suggests taking unambiguous action to counteract the erosion of ethical behavior, including calling the local police or building security when a theft is observed, and avoiding liars “as if they had a contagious disease.”
  5. Practice tolerance. You may not have the final or only word on what is right or wrong. You may not have all the information or thought about it from the other person’s perspective. Self righteousness will make you feel superior but accomplish nothing. Explore ethical dilemmas with a spirit of honest inquiry and look for the best outcome. The views of others are not better or worse—just different from yours.
  6. Expect the best from people and you will usually get it. People really do want to do the right thing. “Do not ever gossip or complain to anyone about anything, not even about the company scapegoat to your best work buddy,” says Prest. “In other words, do not add to any negative information circulating or assumed. Ever.”
  7. Do not judge, shame, or blame others. This only puts distance between you and your coworkers. Accept the reality that people are not always as ethical as they think they are. We tend to judge ourselves by our best actions and best intentions and judge others by their worst. This is human nature.
  8. Start communicating with your supervisor. All respondents advise starting a dialogue about all your concerns with your immediate supervisor. Begin with communicating your respect and trust in your boss’ ethical judgment and standards, and let your boss know you have high expectations as they perceive them. Convey to your boss your wish to protect his reputation as well as that of the company. Be sure to tell the truth, be open and concise, and provide your boss with the complete facts. Let your boss know you are committed to helping develop the ethical office because it will result in a more productive and profitable organization. No one can argue these two cost-effective benefits.

Here are a few key questions to ask your boss in this initial conversation:

  • Have you been aware of these circumstances?
  • Have you been aware that this situation is affecting my job performance?
  • And perhaps the job performance of others?
  • What can we do about this?
  • What can I do to help?
Fix the Meltdown of Workplace Ethics or Else

As I have previously discussed in an earlier post, Time to Reset Accountability in the Workplace, the ongoing discussions with your boss should lead to action in the form of a code of ethics, an ethics hotline, team meetings, seminars, additional training, involvement by senior management in new initiatives, and other ideas.

“If the company does not become concerned with these problems, they will (1) lose good employees like yourself and (2) lose their customers besides,” says Norma Kasinger. “There are swinging doors in the human resource department and marketing department at companies that have an unethical culture.”

Initiating and conducting a constructive conversation and plan of action about ethics among your coworkers will probably be difficult. But the task is well worth the effort. The advantages of establishing the ethical office will soon be apparent. Simple statements of principles and values, when integrated into the day-to-day operations of the company, can inspire employees to change their behavior overnight and make their next decision the right decision.

Change Starts With You

Don’t wait for someone else to inspire you or cajole you or even shame you into establishing an ethical office. Begin today, and reap the rewards so many have found in doing the right thing.

You have an important role to play, even though you may feel your contributions and efforts are so small as to be inconsequential. That’s just not true. The small decisions you make are small steps leading in the right direction toward more ethical workplaces. You are in control and you can make a real difference.

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