Ethics may be one of the most difficult areas of our lives to understand. Perhaps we will never understand or at least fully define a strict set of ethical rules to be followed either in business or in our personal lives. This is why most organizations will have ethical guidelines, but not ethical standards in a strict sense.
Naturally, anything that is in violation of the law is unethical right? Some of you may answer this question with an absolute and uncompromising yes, while others are thinking something more on the line of how “that just kind of depends”.
Our personal code of ethics comes from many influences throughout our lives, and since we did not all come from the same families, the same parts of the world, or the same economic levels, we will probably not all have the same ethical values.
Someone I once referred to as a friend is a very good example of how our personal ethics can be different even within ourselves. The person I speak of had just finished telling me how throughout his working career he made a habit of taking things from his place of employment because he felt they owed him more than just a paycheck. He spoke of taking fishing lures from one employer and all kinds of hardware for his car projects from another. At the time we spoke he was laid off from his position and had been trying to contact someone from his place of employment to bring him home some additional hardware that he needed for another project he had been working on.
Our conversation turned to how I was trying out one of those “on-line” movie rental places and how they would send me a movie copy and when we finished watching it we would return it for another copy. He became practically irate with me and told me that my doing this made me no different that the people who had only months before broken into my home and stolen practically everything of value. I tried to explain that I was paying for a legal service, while the people who took my things paid me nothing, but he could not get past calling me a criminal for participating in a fully legal service, while justifying his own admitted routine thefts from his employer.
In business we can run into equally confusing situations. Our managers and leaders preach to us about quality first, and the importance of ethics. They tell us how important it is to never hide a mistake or cover up any issues with a product because we must provide our customer with only the best possible quality product.
In my previous organization, Imagine my astonishment when one of my team members pointed out a damaged part on an assembly and the team leader responsible for that assembly told my team member that he would make sure the damaged area would be hidden so that it would not be a problem!
Even worse was when I took it to the next step. Without telling anyone of the previous results, I pointed out the same damaged part to a manager who in turn notified the manager of the previously mentioned team leader. This manager sent a couple of employees to do a better job of hiding the damaged area behind a panel. Fortunately, when I reported this action to my leadership, the issue was corrected and the damaged part was replaced.
When we make an ethics based decision we draw upon much more than the current information we have in hand. We also draw from our culture, our personal experiences, our training, and even our current attitude which in itself could be influenced by recent ethical decisions made by our peers, or our leadership.
In a perfect world, the same decision would be made by the same people in the same situation every single time, but this is not a perfect world. In the real world, even you will have varied decisions, sometimes based solely on how your day is going at the time. It is easy to argue that you will always hold yourself to the highest of ethical standards, even when the other guy does not, but is this really the case?
If you wake up in the morning and everything feels perfect, you are wide awake, your breakfast smells and tastes extra good today and you know this is going to be a great day, will your decisions reflect that? If you climb out of bed late because the alarm didn’t go off, the bathroom light burns out when you flip the switch, you stub your toe while replacing the light bulb, there is no hot water for the shower and there is no time for breakfast, can you say it will not affect some of the decisions you make that day?
The point is that the decisions we make every day are influenced by many inputs, and before we get too frustrated over the decisions that are made by others we need to take a moment to realize that we may never know all of the reasons a particular decision was reached.
This holds truer as an employee. Just like us, our managers have certain rules to work by and goals they are required to meet. Your manager may have different inputs to weigh into a decision than you do which will influence the decision that he or she will make.
Before you jump to the conclusion that your manager or co-worker is unethical, try asking yourself a few questions —
ï˜ Is the condition or decision going to compromise safety?
ï˜ Does it have the potential to cost the company money?
ï˜ Was the situation or condition clearly communicated to the manager?
If it is not something serious, would it jeopardize schedule and cost to correct, or would it be more cost effective to document the problem as a variance on this unit and then make sure the communication channels are in place to prevent a reoccurrence?
Many of us will consider ourselves ethical just because we do our best to make sure we are providing the best quality product, but there are other ethical decisions we make every single day that affect our employers and reflect on our level of ethics.
When you are hired by an employer you are most often given a set of rules that you are expected to adhere to, and in return for your compliance and your productivity you are given an agreed upon wage.
If these rules state that you are to report for work at 8:00 a.m., take a 15 minute break at 10:30, a one hour lunch at noon, another 15 minute break at 3:00 and then go home at 5:00 p.m. then this is what you are expected to do. How many of you will show up before 8:00 a.m. but not really start working until 8:05? Then maybe you take an extra minute or two along with each 15 minute break, and at lunch you may be back in your work station or at your desk on time, but it takes you an extra five minutes to get back to work?
In the above situation we have now cheated the company out of 15 minutes of work. Not a big deal right? This company can surely afford to cover for an extra 15 minutes! Those 15 minutes becomes an hour and 15 minutes over a 5 day work week, and over a year with 45 weeks of work we have now taken more than 56 hours from the company. How many employees are working with you? 1000 employees doing the same will cost your organization 56,000 hours and at an average rate of only $12.00/hr this becomes $672,000.00!
Is it ok to take a few things home once in a while? Many of you will draw the line here. That is stealing! Isn’t using company time for personal business doing the same thing? How many will not realize that stealing time is often more costly to the organization than stealing paper clips or ink pens, but let’s take a look at that. We will use some easy numbers to figure with, assuming that we have the same 1,000 employee organization and each person takes home a single $1.00 item each week on average, with 45 working weeks out of the year. That will be $1,000 / week, or $45,000 / year!
My point is that being ethical not only helps to maintain good standards, it saves the organization money, and jobs. Many organizations are moving a portion of their work to foreign countries not because they want to, but because they are being forced to. They must cut costs in order to compete in the world market, and much of this cost cutting starts with you and your personal level of ethics.
In many of our professional ethics courses you learn about the importance of not taking bribes or kickbacks, and how dumping toxic waste illegally can harm the organization as much as the environment, but we are going to stay focused on something more controllable at the worker level.
Have you ever stopped to consider the ethics involved with how you treat your fellow employees? Did you know that unethical treatment of your co-workers, even when not crossing the boundaries of the law can be detrimental to productivity? Why should you care? Go back to those figures on how time can cost you your job!
When at work, act professionally and always afford your co-workers professional courtesy. It doesn’t matter that you think Joe is a scumbag, or Jill is the office gossip, they are co-workers who have an important role to fulfill or they would not be there. Keep in mind that what you see on the surface may not be all there is to this person, and the work assigned to them may not be the same as what is assigned to their co-workers.
It is always good to remember that just because you do not see a co-worker turning that wrench or punching keys on the keyboard doesn’t mean that he or she is not being as productive as you are. Maybe you don’t see the difference in the assigned tasks, or maybe this person struggles in an area that you don’t but may excel in areas where you do not. The point is there is no need to make accusations, or think that you have to do more than the next guy. You need to stay focused on you! Perform your tasks to the best of your abilities at all times and you will be successful.
If you do see a co-worker struggling, check with your supervision and ask if you can help them. Maybe your experience has taught you a few tricks to make the task a little easier to deal with, or maybe there is a simplified way to transfer that data from one screen to another.
To be judgmental and accusatory of fellow employees creates unrest and tension in your work area, and is not conducive to a productive or harmonious work environment. Have you ever worked in an area where you can feel the tension in the air just because of a certain individual’s presence? Try not to become that person!
Are there times that you should worry about what your co-worker is doing? Of course there is. If you suspect that your co-worker or someone you know within the organization is acting outside of the law, or outside of company policy, and can get someone hurt or cost the organization money or its reputation, then do not hesitate to report your suspicions to your supervisor.
Be careful when you are discussing business, company products or services and organizational goals outside of the workplace. It is easy to get caught up in frustration or excitement and feel the need to share it with your friends and family, and today’s availability of social networks, e-mails and text messaging makes sharing easy. Just remember that some information from work may be proprietary, and that no matter what, once you have pushed the send or share button, what you have said cannot be taken back. Don’t get yourself fired over a comment sent in a moment of frustration!