Picture it in your mind. You’re at work, and you see or hear a colleague do something you consider “wrong.” It may be stealing office supplies, lying about an upcoming project, or talking poorly about another co-worker.
It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is you witness, but that you know it’s wrong. This idea is ethics. And the value of business ethics is as great as ever. A 2013 study by the Ethics Resource Center reinforced the importance of positive business ethics.
The study found that 41 percent of U.S. workers said they observed unethical or illegal misconduct on the job. Similarly, a study from Edelman found only 28 percent of (over 30,000) respondents believed businesses follow ethical practices.
These statistics show the need for healthy ethical practices. Because, whether it’s true or not, chances are there exists a negative perception, whether external or internal, surrounding your company’s ethics. Here’s how your business can improve its ethics in the workplace.
What is Business Ethics?
Business ethics, as defined by Investopedia, is the study of proper business policies and practices regarding potentially controversial issues. These issues can include corporate governance, insider trading, bribery, discrimination, and corporate social responsibility.
And each of these issues contributes to the success of any given organization. As The Society for Human Resource management has said, ethical lapses tend to snowball. So, establishing ethics in the workplace is crucial for sustaining a consistent level of accomplishment in your given industry.
How do You Improve Your Ethics in the Workplace?
There are multiple tactics your organization can utilize to better your ethics. Each of these tactics ranges in difficulty and effectiveness, but all work to promote positive business ethics.
The first strategy towards improved ethics is the use of moral symbols in your office. A 2016 study by the Academy of Management Journal found as much. When employees display moral symbols, it could help prevent their managers from asking them to cheat or engage in other bad behavior.
These moral symbols include things such as virtuous quotes or religious images. There is a wide range of potential symbols employees can use. Which symbols are the most effective though, depends entirely on the location of your organization.
Effective symbols vary due to the context and society in which they’re displayed. For example, religious symbols that are effective in India may have significantly less impact in America. Because the U.S. has more distance between religion and the rest of society.
Like a good relationship, communication is the key to strong ethics in the workplace. Your organization needs to create clear, written, guidelines concerning appropriate ethical behavior at work; a code of conduct. This code of conduct should detail and explain expectations to your staff.
It’s also necessary to ensure your code of conduct is written down and communicated to all employees. Without this communication, your code of conduct is virtually useless. Your employees have to have (at least) a general understanding of what they can and can’t do in the workplace.
Training, like communication, is critical for improving your company’s ethics. Your employees need the training to give them the tools for enacting ethical behavior. Every staff member has to be able to solve both minor and complex ethical decisions. For example, what should an employee do if they witness a colleague stealing office supplies?
Ethical training protects your employees from harm and your business from malpractice. Teaching every employee is also essential to ethical training. If for example, your company only trains management, employees might not have the tools or abilities to stand up to unethical practices from their supervisors.
Your organization has to have accountability to maintain an ethical workplace. Without consequences, your employees have no external variables to influence their decision-making. Establish a process for handling ethical violations. This method has to hold team members accountable for any unethical decisions.
Accountability is key to maintaining an ethical workplace. A great way to support accountability is through positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means rewarding employees for positive, ethical behavior. It’s vital that leaders in your organization notice and reward this behavior. Positive reinforcement demonstrates expected ethical conduct to everyone.
Get Managerial Buy-In
The ethical standard in your company has to start with your management team. Managers have to lead by example, and model the ethical behavior you expect from every employee. Even small actions taken by managers can have an outsized impact on promoting ethical behavior.
Unicorn HRO, for example, recommends managers finding opportunities to discuss ethical dilemmas in daily business. Leadership buy-in is especially significant when you examine who is responsible for a majority of ethical transgressions. According to Forbes, a recent study found that managers are responsible for 60 percent of workplace misconduct.
Your managers have a more important individual impact on your organization than many other employees. The standard your leadership sets influences every other employee. So, if you’re looking to create a strong ethical tradition, start with your management team.
Create Shared Values
If you want to have an ethical business, create shared organizational values. These values add up to form your company’s ethical workplace culture. This culture, according to SHRM, should give priority to employee rights, fair procedures, equity in pay and promotion, and that promotes tolerance, compassion, loyalty, and honesty in the treatment of customers and employees.
Beginning with the hiring process, show your employees (or recruits) what is important to you as an organization. What does your business value? What do you expect out of your employees? These values explain your organization to worker and recruits. And, this clarity gives your staff a sense of purpose in their role.
The final strategy to improve your organization’s ethics is to be transparent. Business transparency is a “lack of hidden agendas and conditions, accompanied by the availability of full information required for collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision making.” Based on their definitions, if you’re an ethical business, chances are you’re a transparent one too.
Also, if you haven’t always been the most ethical business, transparency can help you become more ethical. If you’re transparent it means you’re explaining the decisions, you make. So, for a transparent company, there is no hiding an unethical decision or mistake. Transparency can result in a greater sense of employee ownership, better employee engagement, and improved company alignment.
READ MORE ABOUT TRANSPARENCY IN BUSINESS
An unethical workplace can add up to more than just a few boxes of stolen pens. In 2013 and 2014 JPMorgan Chase had to pay the federal government more than $15 billion to settle various charges of misconduct.
Conversely, being an ethical organization can have positive business effects. From 1997 – 2013, the annualized stock market returns of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to work for were 11.8 percent. This return is almost double the 6.4 percent for the Russel 3000 Index, and 6 percent for the S&P’s 500 index.
There’s a genuine business case for improving your company’s ethics, especially if ethical questions in your organization are present. When you get that feelin’, you need ethical healin’.