It is essential to understand workplace ethics

Personal values can differ widely, as they are affected by a great variety of factors including upbringing and culture – and consequently they can also differ from the organisation’s values.

This can fragment an organisation’s focus on ethics, compromising the ideal of aligned personal and organisational values.

It is, therefore, important to clarify what constitutes workplace ethics as a clear, shared understanding of workplace ethics is essential for ethical behaviour.

Ethics involves moral choices between right and wrong, and good and bad. Such choices are mostly determined by values, by relevant laws, rules or regulations, by the norms or culture of the organisation and, crucially, by the leadership.

Understanding these factors is necessary to achieve ethical behaviour or an ethical outcome.

It is important to recognise that ethics does not apply only to oneself – they also apply to others. This includes employee as well as the stakeholders – not just the shareholders.

How ethics are recognised and judged can differ. Mostly ethics are associated with a person’s or company’s words and actions – for instance, by their decisions or by their behaviour.

Bribery and corruption are obvious examples of unethical behaviour, as is failure to adhere to laws and codes of conduct. Ethics are also evaluated in terms of differences between proclaimed and actual behaviour – between what is said and what is done.

The conclusions drawn about an individual’s or an organisation’s ethics amount to a judgement of their ethical status.

Workplace ethics can generally be equated with a code of values and a code of conduct, which together can be viewed as a code of ethics.

Distinguishing between the code of values and code of conduct is helpful. While both can (and should) be used to shape behaviour, their nature and outcomes are different. A code of values sets out the values of the organisation, whereas a code of conduct translates those values into workplace behaviours and actions.

A code of conduct generally follows a rules-based approach that strives for compliance – “no smoking”. A code of values, on the other hand, relies far more on achieving willing commitment – “We treat all our stakeholders with respect”.

This difference is pertinent to the question of whether organisations should focus on both values and rules.

Although rules may be easier to monitor or enforce, the underlying question is which of the two offers the more sustainable course of action? If the goal is just short-term compliance, rules should be sufficient. But if longer-term impact on behaviour is needed, then the focus will have to include both.

In most organisations moral values such as honesty, integrity, fairness and respect are included in a code of values.

Among their values, many businesses also acknowledge criteria such as innovation, valuing their people and customer service. While such attributes are valid organisational goals or operational practices, they are business values rather than moral ones.

Being the least innovative person in the company, for example, doesn’t make one unethical.

While understanding ethics is a valuable foundation, the difficult part of ethics doesn’t lie in knowing what it is or isn’t. The difficult part is living it and behaving accordingly.

By Cynthia Schoeman, MD, Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd
Published in The Star & Pretoria News Workplace
Posted on IOL
1 August 2012