Imagine coming into work every day at a workplace that encourages or tolerates misconduct and brilliant jerks as long as they get the job done. Sure, there are those short-term gains, but you may eventually see higher turnover rates, lower productivity, damaging employee’s mental health, and facing public scrutiny, ultimately hurting the company reputation. However, you and your company can avoid a Wells Fargo-like scandal by committing to creating an ethical workplace culture.
What is an ethical workplace / culture environment?
Industry and government regulations shape ethical workplace culture, where employees are expected to follow the company’s code of conduct. According to SHRM, an “ethical workplace culture [ethical culture definition is] one that gives priority to employee rights, fair procedures, and equity in pay and promotion, and that promotes tolerance, compassion, loyalty and honesty in the treatment of customers and employees.” Sounds pretty fair and straightforward, yet many companies still struggle with work culture environment and ethics.
What defines Ethical Workplace Culture?
An organization’s rules and standards that set how people should be treated in the office and how different situations should be handled. [ethical work environment meaning]
Workplace culture (and/or types of ethical culture in business) consists of the company policies that dictate organizational norms, ethics, social climate and values in the workplace. It affects every aspect of the workforce from hiring and firing, to productivity, to the presence–or lack thereof–of strong teams. Compliance is the adherence to laws that affect an organization, and whether or not a company is committed to compliant business practices deeply affects the health of a workplace culture.
How do you build ethics in the workplace?
Here are six simple ways in how to create and maintain an ethical workplace culture environment:
1. Integrate core values into the day-to-day
Without core values, it’s nearly impossible to create an ethical workplace culture. Core values educate employees, clients, and prospects about where the organization is going and communicate what’s most important to the organization. Internally, core values are created to build a sense of trust with your employees and shape the organizational culture. They also create a sense of clarity and purpose for the workforce to be clear on what they need to work towards every day.
Defining and publishing core values alone aren’t enough. You have to live them every day—starting with the behavior at the top. Get your executives involved from the beginning when establishing your core values, so they have more ownership over them.
Companies must continue to communicate and educate employees about these core values and ensure they are reflected in and discussed in everything from interviews with potential new hires, onboarding new hires, company-wide meetings, and individual one-on-one sessions. That way, everyone is reminded of the company culture and seeing behavior that is aligned with these values.
Below are examples of core values that these companies have established to create and maintain an ethical workplace with employees and customers:
- Integrity: We are honest, open, ethical, and fair. People trust us to adhere to our word—Adidas
- Green: We strive to minimize our negative impact on the environment—Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream
- Genuine: We’re sincere, trustworthy and reliable—Adobe
Once these values are set and shared across the organization, a process must be established to hold employees accountable for any actions which cross ethical violations. With this process, it can help influence and motivate positive behavior, keeping your employee’s away from potential ethical violations.
2. It begins at the top
Now that your core values are all set, your job is done. Not quite. To make sure employees are motivated to live your company’s core values, executives and managers must live it and model the same behavior they expect in their teams. Leaders must be vigilant about their actions and how their employees interpret them.
If a manager behaves unethically, so will the employees—it’s a domino effect. Cutting corners to reach a goal, lying about metrics and numbers to the CEO, and engaging in verbally abusive behavior are just a few examples of how leaders can violate ethical behavior. If employees are noticing these behaviors, they will either think it’s okay to do and mirror that behavior or find it offensive and ultimately lose trust in the manager and company overall.
As an HR professional, you can equip leaders with the tools and resources they need to influence and sustain ethical behavior. Ethical leadership must find opportunities to discuss ethical dilemmas in daily work, such as how to avoid cutting corners to meet a tough deadline and seeking help to finish a project on time without forcing team members to do so. Executive influence is vital, and one of the best methods to ensure employees are following company guidelines and being ethical in their day-to-day work.
3. Reinforce the message
While it might take some time for executive influence to kick in, as an HR leader, your job is to continue educating employees. You’ve communicated company core ethics and values in the workplace via email, on the company website, in company-wide meetings, and during the onboarding process of new hires. Unfortunately, even with all that, employees forget what the core values are, and you see more ethics violations in the workplace, and many are even asking the HR department, “Where can I find our core values?”
Continue the conversation about how ethical behavior aligns with the company’s core values. Reinforce the message in a variety of ways, such as training and workshops that teach how to solve ethical dilemmas, open door lunch and learn sessions to discuss potential ethics violations, and internal company newsletters that highlight ethical behaviors, to name a few. Make your team meetings interactive by role-playing examples of ethical vs. unethical behaviors in the workplace and positive reinforcement vs. negative consequences people face. Encourage top executives to speak about company values as well. Another great way to reinforce the message is by posting your core values and ethical guidelines all over the office. That way, if an employee asks, “Where can I find our core values?” you can easily point to them.
4. Create a safe, open space for communication
A safe, open workplace culture motivates ethical behavior. If ethics violations are happening, employees should feel safe to bring it up. According to SHRM, “more than 1 in 5 workers who reported misconduct said they suffered retaliation as a result, up from 12 percent in 2007. A third of those who declined to report the misconduct said they feared they would be punished for doing so.”
Bringing up a potentially unethical issue is a sensitive subject and can make employees feel uncomfortable when talking about it. Employees might think that it’s not worth bringing up or will lead to a harsh and annoyed reaction from a manager. Companies need to live up to maintaining an open space for employees to communicate freely when they see workplace issues.
Workshops and training sessions come in handy to set the expectations of establishing an “open-door policy.” Set up a workshop to teach employees how to solve ethical dilemmas in the workplace and what HR can do to help solve those issues. Remind employees that HR is not to be feared.
5. Reward good behavior
Bad behavior gets the most attention from HR because we want to try to fix it. What about good behavior? Another way to influence and motivate employees in the workplace is to acknowledge and reward good behavior. While recognizing and rewarding good behavior might sound like a parenting technique, companies will see a positive outcome. A few ways to reward ethical behavior include regular positive feedback, extending the employee’s lunch hour, or giving them the rest of the day off on a Friday afternoon. Even a simple, “Hey John, that was a great email you wrote to the VP of Product,” creates a positive impact.
As leaders and HR professionals, notice and acknowledge good behavior in employees so that the right employees are moving up the ladder and getting the promotions they deserve. When these employees get into leadership positions, they can continue to create an ethical workplace culture.
6. Partner with ethical vendors
Motivation and influence not only comes from within the company; it can come from working with external vendors. Ethical investing refers to the practice of using an individual or company’s values and beliefs as the primary decision to select a company, vendor, or individual to invest in or work with. Working and partnering with vendors that have the same ethics and values in the workplace as your organization is just as important as aligning your executives on core values.
Let’s say the CMO of a B2B company decides the marketing team should partner with a 3rd party vendor that brings more attendees to company-hosted events. The marketing and sales team meets with the vendor who has a great track record of high performing events. Before signing a long-term contract, they decide to test the waters and work together on a small roundtable dinner. After a couple of meetings, the marketing team grapples with a number of broken promises the vendor made to collaborate on this project. Instead, they’re demanding the marketing team complete the work the vendor was hired to do, and aren’t communicating changes in the project scope. The CMO immediately cuts ties with the vendor. While this vendor might’ve brought great results due to their track record, the behavior toward the marketing team did not align with the company’s values and workplace ethics of teamwork, fairness, and humility.
Strategies to improve ethical conduct in the workplace
- Rethink or re-create your code of conduct training program
- Make sure to have good communication with your team
- Leaders need to show a good example and practice what they are asking of employees
- Ensure that there is a clear system to report any unethical behavior and that employees feel heard
- Make sure to measure DEI categories to see if there is any improvement
Creating and sustaining types of an ethical workplace culture does not happen overnight; it takes time, effort, and patience. Using core values as the base of building your ideal workplace culture will propel good behavior and prevent any ethical violations that hurt your company. To learn more about creating an ethical workplace environment, check out our Microlesson on “Ethics Diagnostic.”