How to approach ethics in the workplace

Amanda Shults, chief marketing officer, Clark-Theders Insurance Agency

For many companies, the issue of ethics is pushed to the back burner while executives focus on more tangible business concerns.
However, there are many reasons that employers should take ethics seriously, from exposure to costly lawsuits to allowing a workplace culture in which no one knows what is and isn’t allowed.
“Ethics and employment practices are interrelated and attention to both should be paid by employers of all sizes,” says Amanda Shults, chief marketing officer for Clark-Theders Insurance Agency. “Employers must understand their exposures and options to manage the risk.”
Smart Business spoke with Shults about how to approach ethics in the workplace and why ethical behavior matters.

How important is the issue of ethics in the workplace?

There is a difference between acts that are unethical and those that are illegal. Employers must determine how those types of acts will be tolerated within the organization.
Many factors must be considered when running an organization: preparing budgets, hiring, creating procedures, etc. Striving for high professional and ethical standards in all business activities and in its stakeholders needs to be at the top of that list.
It is very important for business owners to keep in mind that an emphasis on high ethical standards and the ability to exhibit best practices go hand in hand.

How can employers ensure that employees take ethics seriously?

Employers should take steps to create a workplace environment that promotes a culture of support and respect for all. That includes having written ethics standards or codes of conduct that are read and signed by each employee annually.
Acceptable ethical practices may vary from one person to the next, so employers should give clear instruction of what is expected when an employee discovers unethical behavior, including whom they should contact and how it will be managed. Some employees may feel uncertainty, or even fear, about what to do in the event that they discover unethical behavior within the company. Employers should provide multiple avenues, some anonymous, to report unethical happenings in order to prevent that uncertainty and fear.
Another way to promote the importance of ethical behavior is by providing meaningful and relevant training on the importance of ethics and how to handle ethical dilemmas. It is sad but true that most employees will experience some type of unethical act. Because of this, it is important to offer resources for employees who need advice on how to handle situations that may arise.

What are some strategies to protect a business from unethical behavior?

In an ethical workplace, employers must consider the impact of their employment practices, as lawsuits in this area should be a major concern for employers of all sizes. You can’t manage the risk if you don’t understand your exposures and options.
The three most common employment-related lawsuits today are wrongful termination, discrimination and sexual harassment. Unethical behaviors such as intimidation, harassment, bullying, bribes, theft and Internet usage can lead to these types of lawsuits.
Two solid strategies that go hand in hand to protect your business are comprehensive employment practices that include ethical standards and employment practices liability (EPL) insurance, a policy that defends your company against a suit or that pays the claim should you lose.
Emphasizing ethical behavior through communication and education will allow employers to rely on the skills and abilities of their people to make the right decisions.  Although workshops, training, or insurance policies targeting employment issues may seem like another expense, they can ultimately reduce your overall cost of doing business by preventing an allegation, suit or claim.

What can employers do to change the culture if ethical behavior has not been a priority?

Communication is vital in promoting ethical behavior in the workplace. An employer could begin with a simple position statement about the significance of ethical behavior. Once everyone hears that message, the company can begin to look at its current practices and identify areas that need attention or that may already promote ethical behavior.
Next, determine resources that you may have to assist in helping you develop best practices that promote ethical behaviors, both internally and externally. The more people who are engaged in the process, the more likely it is that there will be enthusiasm and appreciation surrounding the efforts to create an ethical environment. In addition, rewarding ethical behavior and punishing unethical acts consistently is recommended for effective ethical practices.
If an employer is comfortable doing so, encourage employees to share ethical dilemmas they encounter, the options and consequences they considered, and the solution they chose. Ask if they are satisfied with their decisions, or whether their choice keeps them up at night.
Finally, lead by example. Actions are stronger than words, and your employees will take note of your behavior.

What results can employers expect from implementing these strategies?

As with the old saying, ‘Birds of a feather, flock together,’ organizations that promote high standards of ethical behavior may experience better recruitment and retention of the best people. Additionally, these changes may strengthen the reputation and brand of the organization, promote open and frequent conversations on ethical issues, support and empower employees, align daily work activities with the overall purpose of the company and ultimately cultivate a more satisfying work environment for all.

Amanda Shults is chief marketing officer at Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach her at (513) 644-1278 or [email protected]