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Don't Be a Jerk or: Ethics in the Workplace

It can be tricky sometimes to navigate the business world and stay completely ethical. Maybe you found out a piece of information no one else knows that you can use to your advantage. Maybe you don’t correct your boss’s incorrect assumption about a co-worker who’s also up for a promotion you’re trying to get. Maybe you stay on the clock after you’re done with work to answer Facebook messages. Keeping a strong sense of personal ethics is more than just not stealing from the company (which is also a no-no), it’s about being honest and doing what’s right in all aspects of business. There’s even an entire organization that exists to promote ethics in the workplace.


What Ethics Are and Why We Should Care

Ethics is, simply put, an overarching system of moral principles. Ethics (as a whole) is used to foster positive social interactions and help the world keep functioning. Of course, there are levels of right and wrong. Murdering someone is far worse than say, cutting in line to use the photocopier. But an ethical person understands that both are wrong and wouldn’t murder someone or cut them off in line at the photocopier (or murder someone for cutting them off in line at the photocopier). 


We should care about ethics because only by promoting and living by a coherent and thorough system of ethics do we have any hope of succeeding in our personal lives or in the professional world with humanity. Sampson Quain of the Houston Chronicle put it this way, “Honest, hardworking employees who are driven by principles of decency and fairness increase overall morale, improve your company’s reputation, and help ensure long-term success.” It’s not just good for you, it’s good for everyone.


What We Can Do as Individuals

Think about the golden rule. Do you like being lied to? No. Then don’t lie to other people. Do you like when people break their promises or deadlines? Then don’t break promises or miss deadlines yourself. Ethics aren’t about “getting caught,” they’re about doing the right thing. So sure, you may be able to leave a mess in the breakroom when no one is around and “get away with it,” but isn’t that a sorry thing to do for the next person that walks into the breakroom to heat up their Lean Cuisine lasagna? People like ethical people more than someone who is selfish and uncaring.


What We Can Do as Leaders

Too often, businesses treat ethics as a synonym for “employee theft.” Of course, that is a part of it, but there’s so much more to it than that. If you’re a leader and you think ethics is more about the administrative assistant checking his Twitter account and “committing time theft,” consider this: The 2013 National Business Ethics Survey found that 60% of misconduct involved someone with managerial authority. The first and most important step for leaders is to be ethical yourself. If you tell people they can’t make personal calls on company time, but have loud personal conversations on the phone in your office, you’re not going to inspire your team to do anything except put expired cream in your coffee. You have to create an ethical culture in your business/organization, and that starts with you as a leader. As Forbes recently put it, “Values are caught, not taught.” 


Also, clearly define rules and regulations. If there’s something that’s clearly not okay, make that clear in the employee handbook. Have clear, appropriate consequences for those that break the rules, including those up top. There needs to be a clear, easy-to-use system for reporting unethical behavior, that is then followed with an appropriate, swift response. Reporting needs to be anonymous (to prevent retaliation), and investigations need to occur for serious allegations. Your business cannot be successful without your employees, and your employees need to be able to feel safe and free to report wrongdoings, whether from the mailroom person or the CEO. 


Don’t Be a Jerk

A few years ago, I adopted a (rather blunt) life philosophy that sums up ethics pretty well: Don’t be a jerk. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not perfect at it (sorry), but it has helped when at a crossroads to remind myself, “hey, don’t be a jerk.” A lot of ethics boils down to just that, so you can use it as shorthand. Stealing is wrong, lying is bad, cheating people out of money is awful. Hence: don’t be a jerk (unless you’re Steve Martin in 1979, of course).

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