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Ethics in the Workplace

Many years ago, when I was a new manager, my boss called me into his office. A colleague was there already. Her position was being questioned behind the scenes, and I was afraid of what was going to happen. I was right to be afraid. My boss looked at me and said, “Do you think we need to keep this position or do we let Jennifer* go?” My mind raced. I had a few seconds at most before I had to respond. The role wasn't needed any longer, that much I knew, but to do it this way? No! But I wanted to keep my job, so I said, “I don't think the role is needed.”

The example above is true. Did we behave unethically?

Another example: An employee, Susan, fainted in front of her desk. The boss stepped over her supine body and asked another employee, Johnny, to fix the font on her screen. The team members gathered around Susan and began to talk to her to wake her while Johnny, wide-eyed and scared, fixed the font. Susan sat up and seemed fine. The boss walked away satisfied, never speaking with Susan.

Again, a true story. Who behaved ethically, and who did not? You may think there is no variation to ethics, but each company culture dictates a slightly different ethics paradigm. At the company where both of these examples took place, the unsaid expectation was that we would accept fear-based management and jump like bunnies to keep our jobs. It was never written out or articulated. We just knew it, we chose to stay for various reasons, and we went along with it.

Values are the personal beliefs of an individual. Ethics are guidelines created for a company. While these come from two different sources, the combination is what we use to make decisions. Think about how you decide what direction to take when you’re faced with a potential ethical challenge. Your decision is likely based on your values and the company’s ethical standards.

Does your organization have written ethics standards? Do they provide ethics training and ensure resources are available for employees who need guidance? Many companies are doing this. The setting up of standards is valuable, and the training and resources are priceless. These allow for employees to know parameters so they can take smart risks, educated leaps, and know they’re working within the culturally-accepted boundaries. This releases top management from having to be involved in every potential ethical question.

The act of writing out an Ethics Standard forces the tough questions to be answered. The process and the result are manifestations of the company’s ethical standards. Management will likely find this experience painful at first and endlessly rewarding when accomplished. Google “examples of company ethics standards” and you’ll find “About 17,600,000 results (0.34 seconds).” Yes, this is a popular trend for good reason.

One last story: the licensees weren’t paying their fees on time. The new hire, Abby, asked them what the obstacles were. It came down to one word: trust. They did not trust that the invoices they were receiving were accurate. Abby did more digging and found that they were right; the invoices were inconsistent and incomplete in terms of the agreed upon data required to instill confidence. She overhauled the system against much internal objections and increased the licensee timely and complete payment rate by 93%. Abby had to balance her own value of comprehensive financial accountability with the company ethical culture of seemingly purposeful undefined billing practices. Because there were no Ethics Standards, Abby didn't know if she’d be fired for going against the norm or rewarded for pushing the envelope. In addition, Abby was left to wonder if in fact it was purposeful or just one of those many issues that get lost in the black hole. In other words, Abby didn't know if the company was behaving ethically in general and she questioned if she could stay.

It benefits the Brand to create and implement an Ethics Standards program. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a Brand necessity for two powerful reasons:

  • Today’s end customers are educated and care about how we treat our employees. There are hundreds of online petitions on the subject of fair treatment, and consumers are aware of the impact of their purchasing power. Let’s make it easy for them to stand with us.
  • Recruiting and retaining top quality performers and enabling them to truly deliver means ensuring an environment of trust. Abby, in the example above, couldn't stay where she felt she was compromising her integrity.

  • When there are clearly defined Ethics Standards and a robust ethics program ensuring universal understanding and compliance, the result is a safe and productive environment that encourages discussion of ethical issues. This creates a safe environment for reporting concerns confidentially and a culture of educated and empowered associates. All of this benefits the bottom line, so it’s likely your organization has one. If you aren’t sure, ask your Human Resources partner. And if your workplace doesn’t have one, be the trailblazer and introduce the idea—your Brand will be better for it.

Rena DeLevie

A people-oriented transformational leader, Cella Consultant Rena DeLevie has spent almost 30 years in the creative industry, including significant retail experience (Talbots, J. Crew, Kenneth Cole, dressbarn), first as an art director, then in creative operations/management. Rena has extensive experience in corporate management trainings, workshops, one-on-one coaching and presentations. She writes on the subject of leadership and management and has been interviewed on HuffPost LIVE, among other media, about Compassionate Management, a subject on which Rena is passionate. In addition Rena is a core member of Cella’s professional development team featured at Beyond the Creative and Creative Manager Boot Camp training seminars.  

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