Ethics in the workplace: yours or mine?

Ethics in the workplace: yours or mine?

In this article we consider why workplace ethics are necessary, what they are, and how to introduce and run an ethics programme.

Are workplace ethics really necessary?

The first twelve years of my working life were for organisations which existed entirely for ethical purposes, were staffed by passionate people with strong consciences, and whose reputations were untarnished by accusations of underhand behaviour. Neither of them had a code of ethical conduct, ethics programmes or mandatory ethics training. They assumed that staff would act ethically, and staff assumed that they were required to.

That was then, and this is now. Since then we have had the Enron scandal, the banking scandal, and, this week, the Panama tax-haven scandal. Major clothing brands have been found to be sourcing through child labour, questions have been asked about the supply chains of the world’s biggest electronics brands, and even a healthcare contractor must now sign a commitment against bribery and corruption.

Ethical trade has been the backbone of British and later UK business since the industrial revolution. The non-conformist work ethic is widely credited with creating the conditions for successful commerce. Companies such as Cadbury and Rowntree invested heavily in worker welfare.

So what has changed? Why do we need ethical codes of conduct now, when we didn’t then?

What has changed is social media, turning everyone into a potential citizen journalist. In the past, the whole of society turned a blind eye to things which—today—would be viewed as deeply immoral. If someone wanted to get up a campaign, such as the abolition of slavery, it took a generation to get things to the point of legislation.

At the same time, people’s view of what is ethical is much more diverse than it ever was. According to the 2015 Ethics at Work survey, by the Institute of Business Ethics, awareness of ethical standards has risen from around 65% in 2005 to 86% today, but there is still a wide range of what people regard as ethical. 8% say that minor fiddling of travel expenses is acceptable, 90% say it isn’t. 21% say that favouring family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts is acceptable, 76% say it isn’t. 25% say taking pencils and pens from work is acceptable, 74% say it isn’t. 39% say using the internet for personal use during work hours is acceptable, 59% say it isn’t.

Some of the disparity may be down to how respondents read the questions, but the 21% of people who favour family or friends when recruiting or awarding contracts, however, may passionately believe that it is their duty to do so when running their own company.

Who is right?

The answer is, in many cases it should depend on published company policy. Which is a problem when there isn’t a policy.

What should company ethics be?

Is it acceptable to take pens and pencils from work? This was the crunch question thirty years ago when workplace ethics was discussed. As someone who has distributed tens of thousands of branded pens and pencils in the workplace over the last twenty-five years, my answer would be: ‘yes, please, if we give you a branded writing implement, please take it home, use it, pass it on!’ On the other hand, when I discovered that someone had been using the corporate colour photocopier to print fake DVD covers (most likely for car boot sales) I was absolutely furious, and immediately had all the copiers pass coded and audited.

These, however, are trivial examples. If you have a company code of ethics that tries to specify when it is acceptable to take a pen home, when it is acceptable to make a personal call, and so on, then it will be so long and so detailed that no one will read it, and even people who do won’t be able to remember it.

When we opened up internet and intranet use in one of the organisations I worked for, we were anxious to encourage staff to improve their IT skills by using the web (it was the early 2000s). The policy we introduced—which I still think is a good one—and which we put on big stickers by all the hot-desk machines was ‘nothing illegal, unprofessional or offensive’. It helped us to develop an open culture, moving us from the bottom of the staff survey results to being the top of our peer group.

Internet usage can create dangers for an organisation, but the big dangers are not to do with what staff might do (it would take an awful lot of thefts of pencils to start eating into your profits), but what the organisation does, or allows to happen.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • You are a supermarket chain, and you receive a tip-off that your most popular brand of tuna is sourced through coerced labour in the Thai fishing fleet. The estimated cost of switching to another supplier is £780,000—and there are no guarantees that you won’t discover that supplier also has slave-caught fish in its supply chain.
  • You are a healthcare commissioning organisation. You are following official guidance in not providing a particular course of treatment. However, you are tipped off that the officially sanctioned treatment you do provide is less effective, and that there are ongoing questions of bribery relating to its approval.
  • A member of staff raises an accusation of bullying against a senior manager, on whom the organisation depends. Once investigated, you discover that there have been numerous allegations over the years which have not been properly dealt with. The organisation is going through a crucial phase of development, and it seems likely a scandal at this point could have grave consequences.

These, by the way, are all real, though anonymised, cases.

The question is not: ‘how do you deal with these?’, but rather, ‘do you have a framework in place that would ensure they were dealt with ethically and transparently?’ If you don’t, then you are relying on the consciences and good judgement of the people who come across them. Sometimes the most ethical people take the most unethical actions. For example, in one organisation I was in contact with, the chief executive sacked a bullying senior manager in a summary fashion. Though the accusations appeared well-founded and the charges grievous, the individual in question was not allowed due process to make their case. The resulting payout for unfair dismissal cost something in the region of £.75 million. In that case, moral outrage led the CEO to unethical action.

A company’s programme of ethics needs to include the following to withstand the very real moral dilemmas that are becoming all too frequent.

  • It must be based on a short list of easily remembered principles.
  • There must be a clear method for the wider principles to be applied to specific circumstances.
  • There must be a process for impartially investigating allegations—including reciprocal arrangements with other organisations where necessary.
  • There must be a mechanism for staff, customers, suppliers and the general public to raise ethical concerns confidentially, safely, and with the confidence that they will be properly investigated.
  • There must be clear authority for managers to make decisions which are ethically necessary, but which are costly.
  • The organisation must have an active programme of audit to uncover ethical issues which are not reported.
  • The organisation must publish its code of conduct, its processes, and the issues it has dealt with as part of its annual report.

Introducing and running an ethics programme

Many company ethics policies are introduced retrospectively—telling a member of staff that they have acted unethically after the event. It should not take a great deal of thought to realise that this is, in itself, unethical. Senior managers, in such circumstances, may be tempted to raise their hands to heaven and say ‘isn’t it obvious that that was unethical?’ Ethics begins where law stops. In today’s Britain, there are adherents of all five of the world’s major religions and hundreds of minor ones. There are secularists, atheists, humanists and people who are yet to decide on what they believe. There are at least six popular ethical systems in use. So, no, it is never obvious. Some things which you feel ethically compelled to do may be unspeakable in someone else’s moral framework.

Law, Ethics and Morality do not overlap, and there is an area between them of opinion


Workplace ethics are what we agree within the organisation will be our ethos. Law is what the law of the land requires. Morality is a person’s own moral beliefs. One of the biggest problems in workplace ethics is imagining that they overlap. There is no particular reason why they should, and there is also a gap between them which is the area of opinion. ‘My view is…’ may seem entirely reasonable and compelling to me, but it isn’t binding on anyone else, even if we share the same moral framework, the same ethical code and live under the same law.

We introduce company ethics precisely because they are not obvious.

Another common problem with ethics is programmes is the idea that if we only get everyone to sign a code of ethical conduct, our job is done. Enron had exactly such a code, and everyone had to sign it. The results speak for themselves.

Because ethics are not the same as morality, we cannot expect to engage someone’s conscience to enforce them. We need a proper programme of staff engagement to do it.

The process I would recommend—having implemented various versions of it in different organisations—is as follows:

  1. Audit of existing culture and practice
  2. Adoption by the Board of a Code of Business Ethics
  3. Creation of confidential mechanism for staff, suppliers and customers to raise concerns
  4. Internal communications campaign to raise awareness (events, newsletters, briefings, social media)
  5. Ethical behaviour incorporated into regular programme of staff meetings, training and appraisals
  6. Action taken and publicised when ethical issues are identified
  7. Inclusion of ethics section in Annual Report.

These are just the steps. Although they can be done quickly, and, in many cases, without great cost, they should not be done lightly. I have seen howls of derision by staff when given a copy of an organisation’s ethical code. An ill-advised ethics programme can be seen as ‘more red tape’, a new mechanism for sacking staff who get out of line, or as a temporary management fad.

A good code of conduct will be both give and take. Everyone is managed by someone, and there is often a tendency to draw the ‘us and them’ line just above one’s own level of authority (‘we are the workers, they are the managers’). The code needs to give something to the workers—strong protection if they raise a concern confidentially, guarantees of fair handling if they are accused of something—as well as including things which can be perceived as benefiting management, such as a clampdown on misuse of travel expenses. A good code should make people proud to work for the company, rather than make them think that they have to look over their shoulder. As well as give and take, the code should place the organisation in its wider role in society.

In writing such a code, someone with a good sense of humour needs to go through and strip out every phrase that sounds pompous. ‘We are committed to the highest ethical standards’ may sound great to the Board, but it is either trivial or meaningless, unless those standards are actually set out in writing. If they are, the phrase is redundant. Ethics jargon also needs to be deleted. ‘Transparency’ relates to light passing through materials. Committing your organisation to ‘transparency’ is far too vague to be of any help—unless you really mean to write every internal memo in plain English and post it on the web for all to see.

What is in it depends a lot on the kind of organisation you are, however, the following may help:

  1. The introduction should set out that the code is part of everyone’s contract, whether they have signed it or not.
  2. The introduction should specify that both staff and the organisation itself are being held to the same code.
  3. There should be a section setting out what business the organisation is in, and what business it will not engage in.
  4. There should be a section setting out the organisation’s aspirations in the wider community.
  5. There should be a section setting out what the organisation expects from its staff, and what it gives in return.
  6. There should be a section on ‘what to do if you have a concern‘.
  7. There should be a section on ‘what the organisation will do when a concern is raised‘, including fair dealing for the accused.
  8. There should be a section setting out what is confidential in the organisation.
  9. There should be a section setting out what the organisation will publish.
  10. There should be a section setting out how contracts and employment are awarded.
  11. There should be a section on ongoing audit.
  12. There should be a section on how results and ethical issues are published.

Ideally each of these sections should be one or two sentences long, so the whole thing fits onto a single side of A4. If this isn’t possible, there should be a memorable header sentence for each section which can be easily reproduced, preferably combining to make an easy-to-recall mnemonic. If your staff can’t recall what your ethical policy is when they make a decision, then you don’t actually have one.

With the code of conduct, publish a list of Frequently Asked Questions. This is where you cover the questions of ‘can I make personal calls on my free minutes?’, ‘can I use the internet in my lunch break?’, ‘can I claim mileage if I combine a work trip and a personal trip?’, ‘can I take promotional pencils home?’, and so on. This list can be as long as you like. As a way of promoting the ethical programme, you can ask staff to contribute their questions (anonymously, perhaps). My view is that you should be as liberal in these things as the law allows: the more freedoms you create, the more power you give to things you do want (and need) to enforce.


Ethical companies:

  • have clear policies which authorise staff to act ethically, even under pressure
  • build ethical behaviour into corporate culture, modelling it from senior leadership
  • have a plan for addressing ethical issues as soon as they arise
  • actively audit themselves to ensure that bad practice is neither condoned nor overlooked.

Ultimately, acting ethically is the best insurance against scandal. Everything else will out, in time.

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