Ethics in the Workplace: Helping Your Staff Make Good Decisions

February 24, 2016 — Memo to Managers:
Posted by Compliance Communicator

Do the right thing. Uphold our values. Always act with integrity. These are the kind of messages you’ll typically find in our code of conduct and compliance training. But what about those grey areas? Our training tells employees to ask for help anytime they encounter an issue they’re unsure about. However, before they ask, most people try to find the right path on their own. This is often where poor decision making can get organizations and individuals into trouble.

The good news is this: as a manager, you can help your employees avoid unethical business practices. And in fact, our training messages come to life when you reiterate them. Research has shown that people typically make poor decisions for one of four reasons: lack of understanding, pressure, lack of accountability and self-interest. Here are ways you can support your team in ethical decision making around each of these issues:

Lack of Understanding: Employees may not recognize when they are dealing with an ethics or risk issue, or they may lack understanding of the rules and standards that apply. Sometimes, it can be simply not realizing their responsibilities in a sticky situation.
Remedy: Watch the news, check out blogs and talk to your team about the types of risks and ethical challenges that may occur in your organization. Pick one or two issues that are particularly relevant to your staff and the work they do. Work through the “what if” situation using our code and policies as guidance. This helps them walk through the process of ethical decision making in advance of a problem while demonstrating your willingness to help with a tough issue.

Pressure: Time and performance pressure are part of today’s business world. However, pressure applied by management or peers to achieve an impossible deadline, or to do something that violates values or rules, can push good people to cross the line. Inappropriate incentives can do the same thing.
Remedy: Keep an eye on the pressure meter in your workgroup and any extraordinary incentives to “get the numbers” or “have zero safety incidents.” Verbalize to your staff, often, that there is no justification for misconduct.

Not Enough Accountability: Inconsistent discipline for misconduct sends the message that our organization is not serious about doing the right thing. Discounting future consequences in favor of immediate gain is a risk when there does not seem to be accountability for making ethical decisions.
Remedy: Make sure to take corrective action consistently when needed. And when you educate your team on the issues they may encounter, be sure to emphasize the consequences of bad behavior—both short and long term.

Self Interest: It is, unfortunately, human nature to believe that we are smarter, more deserving and better than we really are. In the workplace, this can lead to a “slippery slope” situation where someone rationalizes doing just one small bad thing, which makes the next bad decision easier, and so on. By his own admission, this type of thinking landed Andrew Fastow of Enron fame in jail for many years.
Remedy: Talk with your staff about the human frailties we all share, and do it often. Awareness of a temptation can be built through periodic repetition of the potential risk.

Celebrate Good Decision Making

It’s easy to overlook the good decisions being made in your work group. Make a point of looking for these and mentioning them in staff meetings. Such decisions make good instructional moments—and the person who did the right thing will appreciate the kudos.

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