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Workplace ethics are the application of morality, or concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, justice and virtue to all activities of the business. It closely relates to corporate social responsibility, but is much wider in scope.
The scope of business ethics lies in two dimensions:
- Workplace behavior ethics, or the illegal and questionable practices of individual managers, such as wrongful use of resources, mismanagement of contracts and agreements for personal gain, conflict of interests, and the like.
- Business ethics issues, such as ethical dilemmas when making decisions, dealing with stakeholders, and the like.
The primary requirement for managing ethics in the workplace is an understanding that workplace ethics is a continuous and on-going process ingrained to management practices, and not a deliverable defined project. It influences the way the organization functions, and remains independent of profits or product range.
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Irrespective of the dimension of business ethics, the basic requirement for managing ethics in the workplace is to have a strong ethics policy in place that makes the company’s ethics policy transparent and objective. Such as, ethics policies need to highlight the organization’s underlying values, code of conduct for the workforce, do’s and dont’s when dealing with stakeholders, standards and procedures to prevent dishonesty, theft, and other acts of moral turpitude, and other aspects of preferred behavior. It also needs to prescribe a means to enforce such behavior and codify punishments for errant behavior.
The aim of a good ethics policy is to prevent moral dilemmas rather than cure such dilemmas, for once a dilemma sets in, human self-interest becomes too strong, and only a strong internalized moral fiber rather than legislation can ensure restrain.
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One important consideration in managing ethics in the workplace is to ensure that the company ethics policy remains consistent with the law. The law, for instance prevents various forms of discrimination, sexual harassment, and requires accommodating disabled people. The ethics policy needs to incorporate such stipulations. A good ethics policy, however, should not be a mechanism that codifies all the ethics related statutory requirements either, and needs to go beyond what the law allows.
The policy also needs frequent review to reflect the changing legislation and societal norms on proper ethical conduct.
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An ethics policy, unlike other policies needs across-the-board implementation with zero tolerance for the corrupt. For instance, treating floor level workers engaged in dishonesty and other workplace behavioral ethics issues with dismissal and letting a manager go scot-free for the same instance of dishonesty and issues, sends wrong signals and does more harm than good for the company.
The top management needs to lead from the front and become champions of the established ethics policy to ensure its widespread acceptance by the workforce and institution as part of the company culture.
Diluting the ethics policy for short-term commercial gains, such as offering bribes to secure a contract when the ethics policy clearly forbids bribes, also sends the wrong signal to the workforce. Such dilutions and compromises lead to the workforce not taking the ethics policy seriously, ensuring that it remains confined to the policy books.
Some large companies have an ethics committee and ethics officer to vet company decisions and actions, to ensure that they remain compliant with the set ethical standards.
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An ethics policy works best when the workforce inculcates the salient features of the policy and takes ownership of the ethical guidelines rather than consider the same as cumbersome regulations that need compliance with, and which drags down the efficiency of work.
Implementing the ethics policy in an authoritative directive style will fail, as would hard selling the ethics package to an uninterested workforce. The best approach is rather involving the employees in the development of the ethics policy and standards. Another foolproof way to ensuing prevalence of the required ethical standards is incorporating ethical values in the recruitment process, and hiring only those candidates who make a fit, or whose personal values related to ethics match the company’s ethical values.
The best approach in managing ethics in the workplace is to focus on managing people’s values and resolving the conflict between personal values and company values, rather than trying to alter individual values or souls.