How to be ethical at work

Written by
Changeboard Team

10 Nov 2010

10 Nov 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Developing ethics

However, relatively few organisations provide sufficient guidance to their staff about how to be ethical. You may think guidance is not necessary and that if you are a decent person it is easy to be ethical. It is not as simple as that.

Sometimes there is pressure on someone not to do the right thing. Sometimes they are presented with an issue where there isn’t an obvious or correct solution. And sometimes it is not always obvious that an issue has ethical implications.

Ethical issues are, by their nature, complex. So if your employer does not provide training or guidance it is a good idea to take it upon yourself to get to grips with the subject. Not doing so could mean you put yourself and/or your company at risk if you unknowingly do the wrong thing.

Increase your knowledge

Increase your ethical knowledge and skills. It's not always easy to know whether an issue is an ethical one, let alone decide the best way of handling it. Going on a course or reading a good, practical book on ethics in business will help you to identify ethical issues as well as giving you a structured approach to tackling them.

Get a mentor

Given that ethical issues can be difficult to identify in the first place and require skill to handle, it is wise to have someone you can use as a sounding board. A trusted person who has experience in handling ethical issues themselves can really help.

A good mentor can give practical guidance as well as lend support in what can sometimes be very stressful situations. This mentor could be a colleague or boss or someone outside the company.

Code of conduct

Familiarise yourself with your company’s code of conduct. Some companies have a code of conduct that outlines what is and isn’t acceptable. Most codes also give guidance on what to do if you encounter an ethical issue yourself or if you think that others are involved in some kind of unethical situation.

Unethical behaviour

Understand the different ‘rationalisations’ that you and others may use that stop you/them from doing the right thing. There are a number of reasons why good people can end up acting unethically at work or stay silent when they witness others’ unethical behaviour. ‘It’s standard practice’, ‘It’s not a big deal’, ‘I want to be loyal’ and ‘It’s not my responsibility’. These are common rationalisations.

Sometimes people genuinely do not think they are doing anything wrong when they use these rationalisations. Other times, deep down they know what they or others are doing is wrong but it is easier to have an excuse not to challenge others or to go against the prevailing norm themselves.

Acid test questions - ethical dilemmas

Use these ‘acid test’ questions when faced with an ethical dilemma.

  • Would I be happy for my decision to be published in the media?
  • Would I be happy for my friends and family to know about my decision?
  • Is there any part of me that thinks this decision is wrong/is ashamed of it?
  • What is the best decision for the highest possible good for all concerned?

Stay ethical at work

The five recommendations above will go a long way to ensuring that you stay ethical at work. There is another ingredient which is useful too, and that is courage. It can take courage to challenge wrongdoing, to go against custom and practice and to raise concerns when you believe something is wrong. Having a reasonable level of ethical know-how will mean you are more confident about tackling ethical issues. Having the confidence that what you are doing is the right thing helps you to be courageous.

Be ethical savvy

Different people have different reasons for wanting to be ethical; because it is morally right, because they want to protect their reputation or because they are worried about the risk of doing the wrong thing. Whatever your reasons, with the increasing public spotlight on ethics there is no doubt that it is a good idea to increase your ethical savvy.