Is it true we are suffering from a workplace ethics crisis? Are behaviors that were once thought unacceptable: lying, cheating, misrepresenting, and covering up mistakes, becoming in many people’s eyes acceptable or necessary practices?
According to recent studies by organizations such as the Society for Human Resource Management, the Ethics Resource Center, and Deloitte:
Over 10% of employees believe it acceptable
- to use the company credit card for personal use
- to call in sick when you’re not
- to keep confidential files
- to date the boss
Over 10% of employees have noticed
- their company lying to customers or the public
- employees falsifying time sheets
Over 15% of employees
- Plan to leave their jobs soon because they mistrust management
Over 20% of employees have noticed
- abusive behavior
- employees being lied to
- company resources being misused
Nearly 20% of HR professionals
- feel pressure to compromise their ethical standards
Over 50% of employees
- say ethics have no part in employee evaluations
This isn’t exactly a rosy picture of workplace ethics. What’s more, some critics stress that the effort to teach ethics to adults is futile since people establish their individual value systems when they are very young. However, others point out that several studies have found that values can be learned even after early childhood.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that one of the most important functions of human resources is to train, educate, and communicate with employees on rights and wrongs in the workplace. Human resources and ethics are linked and must be integrated. Human resources must spell out for employees that ethics come before deadlines or the bottom line. It is a message that can easily be overlooked in the work rush, especially if employees feel pressured to violate company policies in order to achieve business objectives. Ethics should be instinctive when making decisions, and a good ethics program can successfully guide employees through the decision making process. Well-communicated guidelines help set the standards for employees.
So how can HR teach ethics? First, human resources can help design the ethics programs, advise on strategy and consult on investigations, as well as play an ongoing role in educating and training workers about ethics.
Second, to get the message across, human resources can insure that ethics guidelines are easy to use and even inviting to employees. A good ethics program provides both verbal and written reinforcements and offers a variety of packages for employees to learn about or discuss ethics. Although a usable ethics code and an accessible ethics officer will help get the message out, a successful effort requires active communication, education and training.
Third, human resources can insure that the basic values of the company are visible, and communicate those values during the selection process, employee interviews, orientation sessions, and performance reviews to create a culture that emphasizes ethics.
Clearly, the studies I referenced above show that workplace ethics aren’t where they need to be. And it’s not encouraging to see that so many human resources managers themselves feel pressured to compromise on ethics. But human resources, more than any other company department, has to be the driving force behind creating, and following, a strong ethics program.