Building an Ethical Workplace

May 26, 2006

Katherine Spencer Lee

While the headlines have been dominated by large-scale problems, such as those at firms like Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson, et al, often it’s the smaller issues that take a toll on companies.

For instance, in the IT department, you may have concerns about employees copying company software for personal use or falsifying information on their time cards or expense reports. The latest research from the Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes ethical practices, shows that while 52% of employees have observed at least one form of misconduct in the workplace in the past year, just 55% reported it to management.

These violations can not only prove costly in a financial sense but also chip away at an organization’s positive culture and its reputation. The solution is to look beyond just having a code of ethics and make ethics a core value in your department.

Set the tone at the top. As an executive, you set the example for your entire group. If you adhere to the highest standards of behavior, your team is more likely to follow suit. Even one mistruth or lapse in judgment can have negative consequences.

If employees observe you downplay the severity of an IT problem when communicating with other executives, for example, you send the message that dishonesty is acceptable.

Develop written guidelines. It is helpful to create a formal document outlining ethics policies in your group. Even if your company has a general code of ethics, you might consider having a brainstorming session with IT staff to customize it so you can include specific examples that are timely and relevant to your department.

For instance, technical support staff may face common ethical quandaries in their work, such as what to do when they discover employees have downloaded inappropriate content to their computers, and best practices can be detailed in the document.

A code of ethics can serve as a helpful reference when employees are faced with challenges and are unsure of appropriate action.

It is also helpful to have a process in place to inform your team. For example, once a formal document is finalized, you might ask staff to return a signed form stating they have received and read through all of the guidelines and agree to abide by them.

While this won’t prevent all problems, it can provide extra assurance that employees are at least aware of the rules. There may be additional requirements involved so be sure to work with your firm’s legal council to determine an appropriate plan of action.

Communicate your vision. The companies most successful in promoting ethics make it a top priority from the time people are hired. In fact, public firms are required to actively communicate their written code of ethics under provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Orientation and training programs may include role-plays, videos, games and other activities to reinforce standards at the firm. Additionally, leaders may address the topic regularly in their meetings, speeches and presentations.

An effective way to generate open discussion about ethics in your group is to share situations that may have come up in your own work: Maybe you dealt with an unscrupulous hardware vendor or debated whom to tell about a confidential issue.

Your real-life examples may spur those on your staff to share their challenges on the job and discuss related issues.

Make it safe to report wrongdoing. As much as you may promote ethics in your IT department, your efforts won’t be successful if employees don’t have an easy and safe channel for reporting violations or questionable situations.

While Sarbanes-Oxley requires such measures for public companies, you may want to implement similar reporting procedures even if your firm is not publicly held. Make sure your environment is one in which employees can deliver bad news to management without fear of negative career repercussions. People also should know that their supervisors will take immediate action and investigate claims.

Overall, make sure that rules are applied consistently throughout the group. An IT manager who violates policies should be subject to the same consequences as a level-one help desk professional.

Employees have a responsibility to uphold the highest of ethical standards. The “right thing” isn’t always the easiest one, so make sure you are giving them clear guidance on how to manage challenging situations, particularly the smaller quandaries, such as what to do when learning a coworker secretly took home a company laptop for personal use.

With ongoing discussion and reinforcement of key principles, your staff will know expectations and what is considered appropriate action. Let your team set the example in the company by acting with integrity and professionalism at all times.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at


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