Ethics in the Workplace

By: Joshua Joseph

Results of a recent national study provide solid data that leaders who want to establish a practice of positive workplace ethics within their organizations should develop written ethics standards, provide ethics training, and ensure resources are available for employees in need of ethics advice.

Association executives typically want the answers to two key questions about ethics in their association offices: “How do workplace ethics apply to the practical goals of my organization and the work of my employees?” and “Can you show me reliable data that support your assertions?” In this article, we address those questions as we present findings from the Ethics Resource Center’s 2000 National Business Ethics Survey (2000 NBES) – a rigorous telephone survey of 1,500 U.S. employees – and discuss what these findings mean for association executives.

One caveat first – we focus on issues relevant to an association’s internal staff and to ethics programs designed for them, not for association members whose relationships with their organization are often very different from those of staff. In the 2000 NBES, we gathered information on three key elements of an ethics program: written ethics standards, ethics training, and means for employees to get ethics advice (e.g., a telephone help line or ethics office).

Ethics Trends

Studies show that formal ethics programs are becoming increasingly common in U.S. organizations across the nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors. Compared to the 1994 survey, the 2000 NBES finds dramatic increases in the percentage of employees who report that their organizations have ethics programs. In the nonprofit sector specifically, the 2000 NBES finds that nearly 90 percent of employees say their organizations have written standards of ethical conduct. In addition, 65 percent say their organizations provide some form of training about these standards, and more than 40 percent say a dedicated telephone line or office is available for ethics advice. Not surprisingly, the percentages are consistently higher among larger nonprofits – those with more than 500 employees – as compared to smaller ones.

These percentages suggest that many nonprofit executives are seeing value in actively promoting ethics within their organizations. The list of potential benefits linked to an effective ethics program includes the following:

  • Recruiting and retaining top-quality people;

  • Fostering a more satisfying and productive working environment;

  • Building and sustaining your association’s reputation within the communities in which you operate;

  • Maintaining the trust of members to ensure continued self-regulation;

  • Legitimizing open discussion of ethical issues;

  • Providing ethical guidance and resources for employees prior to making difficult decisions; and

  • Aligning the work efforts of staff with the association’s broader mission and vision.

Like most leaders, association executives would likely agree that high ethical standards are important in their organizations. But what does this mean in practice? What are the basic functions of an ethics program, and how can these programs lead to the kinds of benefits described above?

The Function of an Ethics Program

Essentially, ethics programs are meant to affect how people think about and address ethical issues that arise on the job. Gretchen Winter, vice president of business practices at Baxter International, puts it this way: By providing employees with ethics standards, training, and resources to get advice, organizations seek to create a work environment where (1) it’s okay for employees to acknowledge that they have an ethical dilemma, and (2) resources are readily available to guide employees in working through such dilemmas before making decisions.

“It’s fine to have a structure that tells people they need to report it when someone does something wrong,” says Winter. “But that’s not the main reason to have an ethics program.” Winter believes that ethical guidelines, in the form of policies and practices, “give employees the basic tools they need to take informed risks on behalf of their organizations.” Her language is intentional. At a time when many organizations are embracing “risk-taking,” she points out that all executives should view ethics as more than a way to simply reduce risks. Rather, ethical guidelines benefit organizations by steering employees away from ethical risk-taking and into more productive and appropriate kinds of risk-taking.

Winter notes that busy association executives have a choice: “They can either have employees come to them with every ethical decision, or they can give employees a framework to make many of these decisions themselves.” Executives who can trust their employees to do the latter will have more time and energy for other work.

“Ethics programs cannot prevent all misconduct from occurring,” says Ken Johnson, an ethics consultant and colleague at the Ethics Resource Center. “Even in the best-run and most ethical organizations, there are always a few employees who willfully break the rules.”

In such cases, there is no substitute for clear procedures and sanctions. But the real function of an ethics program “is to allow basically good people to do the right thing and succeed.” According to Johnson, this is the essence of a healthy work environment. People need to be sensitive to ethical issues on the job, but they also must trust their organizations enough to raise them.

Encouraging Findings

The 2000 NBES finds much that is encouraging for organizations that are putting their efforts into workplace ethics. For example, employees have high expectations for ethics within their organizations. More than nine in 10 respondents say that they “expect their organizations to do what is right, not just what is profitable.” This finding suggests that most employees are not so cynical about ethics at work. This should be encouraging news for all executives pursuing ethics initiatives. Most recognize that the long-term success of any program requires the active support of employees.

Findings from the NBES also show that both formal ethics programs and informal ethics practices are related to key outcomes. Employees who work in organizations with ethics programs, who see their leaders and supervisors modeling ethical behavior, and who see values such as honesty, respect, and trust applied “frequently” at work generally report more positive experiences regarding a range of ethics outcomes that include the following:

  • Less pressure on employees to compromise ethics standards;

  • Less observed misconduct at work;

  • Greater willingness to report misconduct;

  • Greater satisfaction with their organization’s response to misconduct they report;

  • Greater overall satisfaction with their organizations; and

  • Greater likelihood of “feeling valued” by their organizations.

These findings tell executives that a more positive ethical environment is strongly linked to a focus on ethics programs, to ethical modeling by leaders and supervisors, and to the “frequent” practice of key values such as honesty, respect, and trust.

Importantly for association executives, the relationships described above are even stronger among employees in transitioning organizations – those that have undergone a merger, acquisition, or restructuring within the last two years. The findings suggest that organizations and employees may draw the greatest benefits of ethics programs when times are toughest. However, this also means that the foundations for an ethics program need to be laid in good economic times when, ironically, some of the most valuable benefits of these programs may be least apparent.

Earlier, we highlighted a list of potential benefits of ethics programs. Now we focus on two particular areas of interest to association executives: attracting and keeping good people, and building and sustaining your association’s reputation. It may come as a surprise that some organizations are able to use their ethics programs as a recruiting tool, but it shouldn’t. In many cases, the top-quality people you want to hire are those who are looking for more than a job – they want to feel good about their work and about the integrity of the organization they work for. In a recent conversation, Winter relayed a story about a strong candidate that her company successfully recruited and hired. At the start of a day of interviews, the candidate’s would-be manager took the time to talk in detail about the company’s business practices. When Winter met with the employee several weeks after the hiring, he told her, “I didn’t need to meet another person at Baxter that day. I was hooked in the first 20 minutes.” In a tight, competitive job market, association executives shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact of a good ethics program on attracting high-quality candidates.

The good reputation that an association maintains within its key communities is an immeasurable asset that executives naturally want to protect. Winter notes that a strong reputation is, in many ways, a natural outcome of a strong commitment to ethics at all organizational levels. Executives generally recognize that employees can either enhance or diminish that reputation through their daily decisions and interactions. They may not fully appreciate how an ethics program can give employees the tools to enhance that reputation.

Findings of Concern

Association leaders should pay particular attention to findings in the 2000 NBES that raise serious concerns. One consistent finding is that senior and middle managers in all types of organizations are more positive about workplace ethics than are lower-level employees. This suggests that executives may underestimate the importance of specific ethics issues and concerns facing employees. As a result, they also may fail to address these issues adequately within their organizations’ ethics programs. Thus, it is important for executives to include input from employees at lower levels in the development of ethics programs and to continue to solicit their input and feedback on a regular basis.

Another finding from the 2000 NBES strongly links pressures to compromise an organization’s ethics standards with employee observations of misconduct. Among employees who did not feel pressured, about one in four observed misconduct at work within the last year. In contrast, among employees who did feel pressure to compromise an organization’s ethics standards, nearly three in four observed misconduct during the same period. This link suggests that ethical pressure on employees can be an important warning sign of potential or ongoing misconduct in your organization. As part of broader discussions or surveys relating to workplace ethics, executives may want to ask employees about perceived pressures to compromise ethics standards.

Finally, the 2000 NBES finds that more than two in five employees who observe misconduct at work say they did not report it. There are many reasons why employees may decide not to raise ethical concerns or report misconduct they observe at work. During the last decade, studies have consistently shown that one of the main reasons is employees’ fear of retaliation for speaking up. Employees often know what is right but believe they will be penalized for reporting it. This is not news to many managers – they already see the value of reducing such fears in the workplace. But to take proper action, managers should be aware that employees are as likely to fear retaliation from coworkers as they are from management.

The 2000 NBES finds that one in three employees believe that coworkers will see them as “snitches” if they report misconduct. This is roughly the same proportion of employees who believe that management will see them as “troublemakers” for reporting ethical concerns. A key takeaway for executives is that they need to address and eliminate retaliation systemically, at the management and peer group levels throughout their organizations.

Returning to our initial two questions, there are a variety of practical reasons for association executives to focus on workplace ethics and reliable data that support their efforts. The survey findings consistently link ethics programs and practices to more positive organizational outcomes (e.g., less pressure to compromise organizational standards and less frequently observed misconduct) and greater employee satisfaction. These data have direct implications for sustaining a productive work environment, attracting and keeping good employees, and maintaining your association’s reputation among key stakeholders.

In addition, findings from the 2000 NBES identify ethics areas where organizations commonly encounter problems and suggest preventative actions. It would be naive to suggest that an emphasis on ethics will improve your work environment and solve your association’s problems overnight. But in many cases, a thoughtful and organized effort to target key ethics issues sends an important message. It tells employees that your association is heading in a positive direction, one that is positive for them as individuals.

Defining “Ethics”

Organizational ethics: Sets of formal and informal standards of conduct that people use to guide their behavior at work. These standards are partly based on core values such as honesty, respect, and trust, but they also can be learned directly from the actions of others. For example, what people see their organizational leaders, managers, and coworkers do on the job can influence their own views of what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

Ethics program: The formal policies, practices, and processes that organizations develop to deal with their own ethical issues.

Tips on Establishing an Ethics Program

Establishing an ethics program is not an exact science. As with the development of other organizational programs, it involves the input, interaction, cooperation, decision-making, and ongoing commitment of many people. Proper planning is important, but the effectiveness of any association’s approach also depends on characteristics that are unique to its culture, the leadership style of the executive director and executive team, the association’s relationship with its board of directors, and so on. In addition, discussion of workplace ethics can raise sensitive issues. Some people in your organization may have difficulty or be uncomfortable discussing these issues. Given these caveats, a valuable exercise for association executives is to first ask, consider, and answer seven key questions:

  1. Why might good people in this organization do unethical things?

  2. What are our organization’s values?

  3. Have we adequately articulated these values internally and externally?

  4. Does our organization have written ethics policies, procedures, or structures?

  5. To whom is our organization accountable?

  6. What do we mean by “success”?

  7. Does the leadership of our organization support the idea of an ethical workplace.

About Amr Badran

An Egyptian Business Consultant and Corporate Trainer since 1997. I've trained on Management, Leadership and Soft Skills to thousands of people from many nationalities, backgrounds and professions in more than 10 countries across the Middle and Far East. Holder of an MBA and a Candidate for Doctorate in Business. Find more about my Management and Personal Skills Courses at and feel free contacting me at
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