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Are there two standards of behavior -- one for the workplace and one in personal life?

Cultivating an Ethical Climate in the Workplace

It's not easy to maintain an ethical posture in some businesses that routinely expect their employees to leave their ethics at the doorstep once they join the organization. In some cases the philosophy of top management seems to be that there is a difference between what is ethical at home and what is tolerated in business. Are there two standards of behavior -- one in the workplace and one in personal life?

Ethics requires consistent behavior. Ethics requires practice. It becomes a habit that underlies one's behavior in all situations -- both at home and on the job. The biggest mistake some employees and members of top management make is to think of ethics as relative to the situation. For example, it's acceptable to fudge the numbers in financial statements even though a person would never lie on a financial disclosure form for a loan. It's acceptable to take small items from the office, such as office supplies, even though a person would not steal from Staples. It's all right for an employee to request reimbursement from the company for personal expenses on a business trip even though that person wouldn't do it if he or she owned the business.

Today what I see more often than in the past is that some employees make use of office computer and printers for personal uses such as taking lengthy print outs, heavy downloading and even unnecessary net surfing etc. Personal work needs to be kept personal!

Another all-too-common problem in the workplace is misplaced loyalty. Loyalty is an ethical value but should never be placed ahead of other ethical values such as honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. Imagine if your superior expected you to go along with financial wrongdoing simply because he or she was your boss. Out of misplaced loyalty, some employees might acquiesce for fear of the consequences. However, once you agree to tolerate financial wrongdoing or any other unethical action out of loyalty, it's just a small step down the proverbial "ethical slippery slope." One misstep leads to another and after a while you become part of the problem rather than the solution.

I often see students who think that they  should completely separate personal and professional ethics – i.e. you have one set of standards for work and one for the rest of your life.  In doing this, however, you risk being “amoral” and use the excuse that you were just following your professional code of ethics. Imagine if everyone had a different code of ethics in the workplace.

We all should live life under a set of values that guide our actions, whether at home or on the job. Ethically, you can't justify lying in the workplace for the "greater good" while never doing that at home. Ethics is not like a spigot we can turn on and turn off. We are what we do in life and ethical people always strive to do the right thing without compromising one's values or beliefs. It's not an easy standard to live up to all the time.

Ethics is prescriptive and not descriptive. It is an ideal that we all should strive to achieve -- to be better people and contribute to the betterment of society. It is not about how we do behave but is about how we should behave. No one is perfect all of the time. Ethical people make mistakes. In such cases, whether in business or in one's personal life, the best way to handle the situation is to admit your mistake right away -- don't cover it up -- promise never to do it again. And then follow through by acting ethically in the future.

Business executives and business owners need to realize that there can be no compromises when it comes to ethics, and there are no easy shortcuts to success. Ethics need to be cultivated throughout the organization. Top management needs to set an ethical tone at the top. Actions must match words. Managers who believe this to be the case and act accordingly set the stage for the ethical leadership that is so important in organizations today.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 7, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvicecom.

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