Honest and ethical behaviour in the workplace

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Most definitions of workplace honesty speak about “refraining from lying”, “upholding high ethical standards” and “high levels of integrity”. What this means in practice is difficult to define. Every situation is different. A person who is completely honest about everything may not be an effective worker or a good team player.

Buzzwords like integrity and business ethics are easily tossed around but how many understand them?

Integrity is a broader concept than honesty.

Someone with integrity usually means someone who acts in accordance with personal beliefs. However, in terms of this definition, Hitler had integrity.

Obviously the definition needs to include acting in accordance with universal standards of right and wrong. It involves concepts of consistency, reliability and fairness. Fairness in doing do what is best for all involved.

Ethics is concerned with what is good or right in any social situation. It involves making a moral choice for the good of all parties involved, not just oneself.

“When ethics is applied to business we consider the implications of economic activity on the interests of all who are part of such activity.” (D Rossouw)

It can be difficult to be ethical when there is no perceived personal gain or when the organisation has questionable ethics.

High ethical standards - making action choices based on moral principles or values. What is the most ethical choice when you know a good friend is stealing from the cash box? Which do you choose – loyalty to the friend or the organisation?

Business ethics is now a very popular buzzword.

One of the most significant debates in business ethics concerns when and under what circumstances individuals have an obligation to be honest.

For example, when is concealing information an unethical choice? Do you tell your employer you intend emigrating in a year’s time if you know this will mean you won’t get the promotion you deserve?

Business ethics becomes even more complex when multi-cultural clashes in values are involved. Deon Rossouw, President of the Business Ethics Network of Africa (BEN-Africa) refers to these clashes in his book “Business Ethics in Africa”:

"In our part of the world business ethics is still often regarded as a contradiction in terms. There is plenty of information about the extent of unethical behaviour in business in Africa. Surveys and studies done by African and international researchers tell tales of endemic corruption on our continent.



"For example, Deloitte and Touche conducted a survey on fraud in 1999 in seventeen African countries. In every country, with the exception of Botswana, fraud was on the increase. The kinds of fraud that were identified included forging bank documents, tax evasion, false insurance claims, and electronic funds transfer fraud."

The indisputable fact is that any social structure built on dishonesty is on shaky ground. To quote Rossouw again: “because business is social in nature, concern for others’ interests as well as your own is essential if you want to run a sustainable business.” In the final analysis no one wants to play any game with a cheater.

Trust: Ultimately honesty builds trust.

“Trust can be defined as an optimistic attitude displayed by a person in taking the risk of relying on another person to attain their goal.” (Rossouw pg. 148) The consideration of another person’s interests is a core element of ethical behaviour.

So what is workplace honesty?

Most organisations have some kind of policy or code of conduct that defines behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable.

Honest behaviour in the workplace means the extent to which individuals and groups in organisations abide by consistent and rational ethical standards.

These standards could include:

• Not taking money or stock from the company
• Not spending an excessive amount of work time on personal phone calls
• Not taking excessive leave of absence from work

Other positive standards could include

• Turning in work of a consistently high standard
• Behaving in a professional manner with clients and fellow-staff members – preferably no backbiting, no suggestive comments or “rude” jokes etc.

Defining workplace dishonesty

Dishonesty in the workplace includes theft, fraud, abuse of company time and/or property and excessive “sick” leave or absence from work.

Research suggests that dishonesty in the workplace is rife. The difficulty is to clarify how rife. One reason why there is such widespread disagreement about the extent of employee theft is that very different definitions of theft are used.

Some definitions include all forms of theft, even taking home a pencil. Others restrict themselves to theft of expensive property or substantial amounts of cash. Can theft be quantified? Can a value be placed on it?

Statistics relating to employee theft

• Employee theft is one of the primary reasons of many small business failures
• 10 – 30% of all bankruptcies are due to employee theft
• Employee theft is rising by 15% per year
• Over 40% of retail and manufacturing businesses admit to employee theft

Employee theft is higher in industries in which there are frequent opportunities or strong inducements to steal, such as retail sales, medicine (especially theft of drugs) and banking.

Factors influencing dishonesty

There is an ongoing debate about which factors “cause” or influence dishonest behaviour. One school of thought claims “the person” decides whether he or she will be dishonest.

In other words, personality, background, values, culture and norms of behaviour of the individual will play a role.

Another school of thought, suggested by Karl Marx, insists it is “the situation” that is primarily responsible. This includes working conditions, type of management, salary levels, job satisfaction and recognition.

I believe both have a part to play. In other words, honesty or dishonesty is dependent on the person and the situation. What do you think?

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