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Taking ethics too seriously?

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

In the wake of corporate scandals, many enterprises have beefed up their ethics programs. But managers are now reporting cases of ethical overkill—employees blowing the whistle in every case where they think policies might have been violated. These complaints lead to often-fruitless investigations and, needless to say, bruised feelings among team members. Some expert advice:

Define "legitimate." There are cases of behavior that's clearly unethical, and there are cases of complaints that are clearly off base—and then there's a big gray area in the middle. In the first instance, no matter how disruptive it may be to investigate or take corrective action, the employee who blows the whistle must be rewarded. And in the second instance, if a worker makes complaints (especially repeated complaints) that simply aren't true, then that employee is the one with the ethical problem, and he or she should be dealt with accordingly.

Look at the causes. It's that middle gray area that often gives managers fits.  Often, the problem that causes repeated, but largely harmless, violations of policy—and thus generates complaints—is the policies themselves. They may be obsolete, or they may be theoretically wise but totally impractical, or they may conflict with other important (and equally ethical) values of the enterprise. Give them a thorough review. On the other hand, if an employee is blowing the whistle on genuinely unethical, but small-scale, behaviors—personal phone calls, stealing office supplies—it's wise to take action to raise the team's ethical bar. Deploying the full machinery of an ethics program, however, may not be the best way to do that.

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