Ethics are the guiding values and beliefs that influence how we conduct ourselves, and they’re especially important in the workplace, where ethics violations can mean violations of the law. A strong code of ethics ensures that workers feel safe and valued and can thrive in their work.
In order to create a healthy and ethical workplace, everyone, from the CEO to the summer intern, has to do their part.
What to do when your boss asks you to violate your ethics
Sometimes, you might be asked to break the rules at work. It can be awkward if you want to please your boss but you know you’ll violate your company’s ethics—and your own—if you do what they’re asking. Know that if you get caught doing something unethical or illegal, saying, I was just following the boss’ orders, isn’t necessarily going to get you out of trouble. Whether it’s fudging an account statement or covering for an office affair, here’s how you stand up for what’s right.
Come right out and say it
The best way to avoid an ethically questionable situation is to say that it is or feels unethical. Clearly identify the behaviour that is unethical and cite the company code of ethics or employee handbook (if applicable) or even law that the behavior violates.
I have always admired your great sense of leadership and responsibility. When you [situation where they were a great leader], you demonstrated strong ethics and excellent judgment. I don’t feel comfortable doing what you’re asking of me right now, and I think you know it’s wrong too.
I’m uncomfortable reporting those numbers the way you’ve asked me to. It inflates the results in a way that misleads the client. Not only is that wrong, it could damage our reputation and cost us this account. I know this isn’t stated directly in our code of ethics, but this goes against my own moral compass. Is there a different option/resolution we can agree on?
I witnessed a conversation yesterday that I believe is in violation of company ethics and potentially in violation of the law. It was suggested that the reason a certain employee would not be considered for the promotion was because of her status as a parent. I wanted you to be aware of this discriminatory behavior.
Document the behavior, especially if it persists
If the situation escalates or the behavior persists and you need to go to HR, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or to a lawyer, you’ll need documentation of the ethical violation.
Write down dates, times, what was said/done, the context, who was present, etc. And be sure to keep all documentation not at work or on a work phone or computer, which the company can confiscate.
Read more: Why You Should Keep A Work Journal
How to keep your ethics in the workplace if you’re the boss
Lead by example
If you want an ethical workplace, that behavior starts with you. If you mess up, fess up. If you’re making a decision that you wouldn’t want anyone to know about, don’t do it. No shady behavior.
Make ethics part of the hiring and training processes
Set expectations from the get-go. When interviewing prospective employees, add ethical situational interview questions to the mix to gauge how important ethics are to them. When training new employees, clearly define expectations around honesty, integrity, compliance, inclusivity, discrimination, harassment, etc.
Bonus tip: When advertising open positions, consider instructing applicants to omit information about things like their graduation date or even their school, which can give away age and financial background.
Create a code of ethics and enforce it
Clearly document and define what you mean when you say ethics, which should comprise more than just sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Your ethics code might include hiring and promotion policies and procedures, paid time off policies, how employees are paid (fairly and equally) and how you ensure that remains true over time, and even dating in the workplace. Give employees a clear process for reporting these ethics violations, and build in checks and balances to those procedures.
Publish your numbers
You can show your employees (and the world) that you walk the ethics talk. Publish your gender pay gap statistics and make a commitment to closing it. Publish your numbers around gender and race distribution in your workforce. Measure your own compliance to ethics and talk about it publicly.
Reward ethical behavior
If one of your employees has demonstrated excellent ethical judgement, publicly praise them for it. If it’s not appropriate to publicly praise them, a handwritten thank-you note can go a long way. Explain how their ethical behavior positively impacts their fellow coworkers as well as the company on a larger scale.
How to keep your ethics in the workplace if you’re not the boss
Even if you’re not the boss, you can influence your company culture.
Write your own code of ethics
The code of ethics doesn’t have to come from top management. Set an example for other coworkers by writing your own code of ethics that outlines how you promise to act in the workplace and how you’d like others to reciprocate. Think of it like an honor code.
Move to create a system to report unethical behavior
If there’s not already one in place, talk to your boss or HR about creating an anonymous platform—anything from a simple “suggestion box”–style system to an online platform—where employees can report any iffy behavior in the workplace. If you see something, say something.
Be an ally
Maybe you weren’t on the receiving end of unethical behavior, but you were witness to an ethics violation. Approach the victim in private and offer your support in reporting the problem. You might say: I overheard what Micha said to you yesterday, and it’s not okay. I think you should report it to our boss. I’ll even serve as a witness for you. If you’re not comfortable reporting it,, would you be okay if I did?
Request ethics training
Ask your boss or HR to hold an ethics training session for all employees. There are plenty of third-party organizations that run seminars like these.
How to find a company that shares your ethics
Do your research. If you’re interested in working for a specific company, do some digging to find out if they have a mission statement, a code of ethics, or any advocacy work in the community. Dig a little further on social media to get a feel for their voice and values. Do a little Google search to see if the company has made any headlines in the news, and what for.
But don’t stop there.
Talk to people who work there about the company. First-hand experience is key in understanding what a workplace is really like. Comprehensive research on the company’s values and past actions may reveal if you share the same ethics.
And read reviews. You may not know anyone who works there, and if you do, they may not feel totally comfortable sharing with you everything they’ve experienced. Read anonymous company reviews from current and former employees to get the inside scoop on company culture, ethics, and how women are treated within a company.
Read more: How to Survive a Boss You Hate