Avoiding Ethical Lapses in the Workplace

Did You Bring Your Ethics to Work Today?

Woman furtively takes a doughnut in the office break room.
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Think you are a person of integrity and that you bring your highest standards of ethics to your workplace each day? You may reassess your thinking as you explore the topic of workplace ethics.

Despite hundreds of pages of ethics policies, codes of ethics, codes of conduct, organizational values, and carefully defined work environments, company cultures, lapses in workplace ethics occur every day.

Lapses in workplace ethics result from inappropriate officer behavior such as insider stock trading, expense account fraud, sexual harassment, and involvement in conflicts of interest.

Examples of Real Workplace Ethics Failures

These are examples of workplace ethics problems that cost companies or employees big-time payouts.

In February 2020, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $3 billion to "settle potential federal criminal and civil charges that, for more than a decade, the bank’s aggressive sales goals led to widespread consumer abuses, including millions of accounts opened without customers’ consent."

In a second example, McDonald's fired their CEO for dating an employee. The US fast-food corporation said that although the relationship was consensual, Mr. Steve Easterbrook had "violated company policy" and shown "poor judgment". Mr. Easterbrook sent an email to all staff that "acknowledged the relationship and said it was a mistake. Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on," he said."

According to strategy&'s 2018 CEO Success Study, "The overall rate of forced turnovers was in line with recent trends, at 20%. But the reasons that CEOs were fired in 2018 were different. For the first time in the study’s history, more CEOs were dismissed for ethical lapses than for financial performance or board struggles."

Most of us don’t have as far to fall as Mr. Easterbrook or the other CEOs who were fired for ethical lapses. However, smaller lapses in ethics occur in workplaces every day.

Lapses in workplace ethics do not need to rise to the level of the examples to impact the workplace environment you provide for employees, though. Lapses in workplace ethics can occur because of simple issues such as toilet paper, copy machines, and lunch signup lists.

You can violate the spoken and unspoken, published and unpublished, code of conduct in your organization without a CEO title. You can also violate these rules without your actions rising to the level of conflict of interests and questionable expense accounting.

Lapses in Workplace Ethics Drive Policy Development

Policies most frequently exist because some employees are untrustworthy. For example, many in HR debate the effectiveness of a paid time off (PTO) policy versus time-off policies that divide available days between personal, sick days, and vacation time.

One of the main reasons these policies exist at all, in addition to defining the relationship between employer and employees, is because a few employees took advantage of the employer’s attempts to offer sympathetic time off for legitimate life reasons.

Consequently, employers limited management discretion and decision-making about individual employee situations and instituted policies to govern the many. You can build a similar case for most organizational policies. The failure of some employees to practice principled workplace ethical decision-making results in policies that cover all employees.

Codes of conduct or business ethics exist to guide the expected behavior of honorable employees. But, much of their origination occurred for the same reason as policies. Some employees conducted themselves in ways that were unacceptable to the business.

In today’s workplace, potential charges of unfair treatment, discrimination, favoritism, and a hostile work environment replace much management discretion. The many suffer for the few, and sometimes, your best employees get caught in the equal treatment trap. At best, time-off policies, to use just one example, require an organization's time and energy–hundreds of hours of tracking and accounting.

Everyday Workplace Ethics

Few employees will undergo the legal and ethical ramifications incurred by Mr. Easterbrook and other senior company executives in their practice of workplace ethics. Yet, all employees have the opportunity daily to demonstrate the core and fiber of who they are as people. Their values, integrity, beliefs, and character speak loudly through the behavior that they engage in at work.

Lapses in the practice of workplace ethics come in sizes large and small, far-reaching, and close to home. Some ethical lapses affect individual employees. Others affect whole workgroups, and in particularly egregious instances such as Mr. Easterbrook's dating an employee. whole companies and all of the stakeholders in the company suffer as a result.

Some failures to practice everyday workplace ethics are invisible. No one but you will ever know about the decision that you made, but each lapse in ethics affects your essence as an individual, as an employee, and as a human being. Even the smallest lapse in workplace ethics diminishes the quality of the workplace for all employees.

Examples of Workplace Ethics Failures

Each failure to practice value-based workplace ethics affects your self-image and what you stand for far more than it affects your coworkers. But the effect of your behavior on your fellow employees is real, tangible, and unpredictable, too.

Below are examples of employees failing to practice fundamental workplace ethics. The solution? Change the behavior, of course. You may never have thought of these actions as problems with ethical behavior, but they are. And, all of these ethical lapses affect your coworkers in negative ways.

What are the signs that you know that your actions are substandard? You make up excuses, give yourself reasons, and that little voice of your conscience that chatters away in your head, tries to convince your ethical self that your lapse in workplace ethics is okay. Know what? No matter how much it chatters, you cannot make a wrong right.

Here are 16 examples of employees failing to practice fundamental workplace ethics.

  1. You are using the company restroom and use up the last roll of toilet paper, or the last piece of paper towel. Without a thought for the needs of the next employee, you go back to work rather than addressing the issue.
  2. You call in sick to your supervisor because it’s a beautiful day and you decide to go to the beach, or shopping.
  3. You engage in an affair with a coworker while married because no one at work will ever know, you think you’re in love, you think you can get away with it, your personal matters are your own business, the affair will not impact other employees or the workplace.
  4. You place your dirty cup in the lunchroom sink. With a guilty glance around the room, you find no one watching and quickly leave the lunchroom.
  5. Your company sponsors events, activities, or lunches and you sign up to attend and fail to show. Conversely, you fail to sign up and show up anyway. You make the behavior worse when you say that you took the appropriate action so someone else must have screwed up.
  6. You tell potential customers that you are the vice president in charge of something. When they seek you out and ask for the company VP at a trade show, you tell your manager that the customers must have made a mistake.
  7. You work in a restaurant in which wait staff tips are shared equally, and you withhold a portion of your tips from the common pot before the tips are divided.
  8. You have sex with a reporting staff member and then provide special treatment to them. 
  9. You take office supplies from work to use at home because you justify, you often engage in company work at home, or you worked extra hours this week, and so on.
  10. You spend several hours a day using your work computer to shop, check out sports scores, pay bills, do online banking, and surf the news headlines for the latest celebrity news and political opinions.
  11. You use up the last paper in the communal printer, and you fail to replace paper leaving the task to the next employee who uses the printer.
  12. You hoard supplies in your desk drawer, so you won’t run out while other employees go without supplies they need to do their work.
  13. You overhear a piece of juicy gossip about another employee and then repeat it to other coworkers. Whether the gossip is true or false is not the issue. 
  14. You tell a customer or potential customer that your product will perform a particular action when you don’t know if it will, and you didn’t check with an employee who does.
  15. You allow a part that you know does not meet quality standards leave your workstation and hope your supervisor or the quality inspector won’t notice.
  16. You claim credit for the work of another employee, or you fail to give public credit to a coworker's contribution, when you share results, make a presentation, turn in a report, or in any other way appear to be the sole owner of a work product or results.

The Bottom Line

This list provides examples of ways in which employees fail to practice workplace ethics. It is not comprehensive as hundreds of additional examples are encountered by employees in workplaces daily.

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