HR Management & Compliance

Ethics in the Workplace: Not Always Black and White

Ethics in the workplace aren’t always black and white. Sometimes the issues are obvious and we can easily see when a company is – or isn’t – acting ethically. Other times, actions we may not associate with ethics really can become ethical considerations.

This is very important for companies to consider because ethical values set the cultural tone for an organization, and organizational ethics guide employees on how to conduct their business responsibly.

“I think the issue with ethics, particularly in the workplace, is: while it may be somewhat difficult really include everything that falls under the ethical umbrella, it’s very easy to recognize it when you see it in operation in the workplace. Equally as important, I think it’s very easy to recognize it when it’s absent in the workplace.” Susan Alevas outlined in a recent BLR webinar.

Ethics in the Workplace: When it’s Not Black and White

However, some ethical missteps are more obvious than others:

  • Abusive, coercive, or intimidating behavior toward anyone (employees, customers, clients, vendors, etc.)
  • Discrimination against a member of a protected class
  • Harassment of any kind
  • Theft, fraud, taking bribes, receiving kickbacks, engaging in behavior and activities that could create a conflict of interest

And some are perhaps less obvious:

  • Under-delivering. Is that mistreatment of customers? Even if it doesn’t break laws, there’s still an ethical dimension.
  • Over-promising and then not delivering.
  • Guarding “turf” instead of furthering the interests of the organization.
  • Taking actions that adversely impact productivity and efficiencies.
  • Lowering goals to make them easy to achieve instead of making the company successful.
  • Padding budgets, or going on spending sprees at the end of the year.
  • Scapegoating or blaming others instead of taking responsibility.

These types of issues may not be breaking the law, but when employers are looking to set ethical standards, they should remember that the law is not the endpoint; it’s the beginning. “I view the law as certainly something with which one must comply, and, in terms of the ethical context, it’s really the ethical minimum starting point. We need to make sure we’re legally compliant, and then how do we make sure that we’re additionally ethically sound?” Alevas told us. Ethics in the workplace extends far beyond legal responsibilities.

For more information on navigating good ethics in the workplace, order the webinar recording of “Workplace Ethics: Tips for Boosting Your Organization’s Ethical Culture.” To register for a future webinar, visit

Susan Alevas, president of Alevas Consulting, is a management/training consultant and a private attorney who is licensed to practice law in New York and Florida. She has more than 15 years of experience as an executive leader in human resources and labor relations in both the private and public sectors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *