workplace ethics

Handling Ethical Issues in the Workplace

Author: Lisa Olsen

Have you ever thought about your responsibility and power to improve ethical standards in the workplace?  Assistants have touch-points at many levels in the organization and we often find ourselves encountering ethical dilemmas in the office.  I can usually tell when I’m in the middle of one!

Ethics in the workplace is a unique topic. The situations that present themselves to us don’t deal with easy, black and white answers or solutions. They live in the gray area. Ethics is about behavior and conduct based on our individual value system.

We all have an inner guide that knows the right thing to do – we just don’t always follow it. For some employees, the ability to act with integrity and demonstrate ethical behavior is strong and feels very natural; others need some practice sharpening their ethical radar and learn ‘how to think first about how to react’ to achieve the best outcome.

There are several factors that determine how we react to ethical situations including our background, personality, level of training, and most importantly our value system.  Additionally, depending on the circumstances of the situation, we might also fear retaliation or judgment, so another factor is fear.

Studies have shown that are generally four ethical types that we find in the workplace:

The conformist follows the rules rather than questions authority figures.  You might think the conformist could be counted on to always do the right thing. But, they might look the other way if a higher up were acting unethically. 

The negotiator is someone who usually tries to make up the rules as she/he goes along.  For example, if a negotiator sees a co-worker drinking at lunch, they might wait to see if the behavior affects her/his job in any way, to see if it happens again or if anyone else notices.  They will change the rules to what seems easiest at the time.

The navigator is the person who, when confronted with an unethical situation, turns to their inward innate ethical sense to guide her actions, even if these decisions aren’t easy.  They have a sound moral compass that provides the flexibility to make choices even if those choices are unpopular.  The navigator is seen as a strong leader and other  people respect and count on this person. A navigator will succeed in most companies but will not hesitate to leave a company that is unethical.

Last is the wiggler. The wiggler doesn’t give a lot of thought to what is right. Instead, they take the route that is most advantageous to them.  They might lie to appease a supervisor. The wiggler is motivated by self-interest in order to get on a manger’s good side or to avoid conflict.  They will run into trouble when others sense that she/he dodges ethical issues to protect their individual interests.

The good news is that our individual ethical type isn’t set in stone. There are strategies and tools we can use to become more ethical and make ethical decisions more easily.  One particularly effective tool to use the next time you face a sticky situation is to buy some “thinking time.”

Here’s an example of putting the tool into practice. If a co-worker asks you to fudge some numbers on a travel expense report, you can give yourself the space to react with a few responses like the following:

“I need to think on that. Give me an hour.”

“Can I get back to you? I need some time to consider this.”

“I’d really like to think it over.”

Nan DeMars, The Telephone Doctor, refers to this technique as “freezing time” or “hitting the pause button” and it can be effective. Not only are you pausing the situation with one these responses, you also give the asker a chance to take a pause too, and reconsider the request.  Ms. DeMars explains that this gives the asker a moment to hear what they are actually asking. Sometimes that pause is just long enough to get them to rethink,  and think better of their request.

If the person asking you to make the moral compromise doesn’t change his or her insistence, think about these questions before you respond:

  1. If a jury saw me agree to this on videotaped evidence, would they think it was okay?
  2. If some person I respect saw me do this, would he/she think it was okay?
  3. If I saw someone else doing this, would I think it was okay?

If the answer is “no” to any of the questions, you have your answer.  If necessary, gently inform the asker that it makes you feel uncomfortable and excuse yourself.

We can help raise the standard in the workplace by always demonstrating ethical behavior that matches the high standard of the profession we represent.  

Lisa OlsenLisa Olsen  is passionate about the administrative  career and encourages assistants to be “relationship engineers”

She currently is the Executive Coordinator/Office Manager at Dignity Health and is the Co-Founder of Admin to Admin – providing resources, workshops and retreats for assistants. She is also an Office Dynamics – Star Achievement Certified Trainer/Conference presenter and has been a speaker at IAAP, Administrative Professionals Conference, Executive Secretary Live and many women’s business conferences. Beginning in May, she will be a contributor for Admin Pro – a monthly newsletter for administrative professionals.

See Lisa at our Annual Conference for Administrative Excellence. Less than 100 seats remain for this upcoming event, The Revolutionary Assistant.



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