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Dealing With Unethical Behavior in the Workplace

Mon, 03/04/2013 - 12:52pm | by Guest Contributor

Workplace ethics are an often discussed topic in the business world largely because they are, to some degree, open to interpretation. In many cases the law covers the basic do's and don'ts of workplace behavior. For example, criminal acts like theft, fraud, and violence are prohibited by law.

But there are certain gray areas of ethics that may seem obvious to employers, but less clear to their staff. For this reason many business owners and their management find themselves in the position of dealing with unethical behavior in the workplace. Here are a few ways you can ensure that your employees act in a manner that is in accordance with your ethical preferences.

The first thing you should do is figure out where your interests lie on ethical issues. Much ground has already been covered for you, such as instances involving sexual harassment, discrimination, and whistleblowing, just to name a few. But you may want to spell everything out for your employees so that there is no chance they are unaware of legal issues and personal policies regarding certain subjects. Most businesses do this by creating a section of the employee handbook that clearly states what types of offenses are actionable and how they will be dealt with. This kind of upfront information will not only help your employees to act in accordance with your mandates; it will also give you legal standing should you be forced to demote, fire, or otherwise punish a worker who does not comply with your policies.

Of course, just because you spell it out doesn't mean everyone will act in the best interest of the company (or in their own best interest, for that matter). There will be times when unscrupulous staffers break the law or commit other ethical violations while on the clock, and you're going to have to figure out ahead of time how you can handle these situations in a fair and consistent way so that you, yourself act in a manner that is within the bounds of ethics (and legislation related to the fair treatment of employees). Again, spelling out the repercussions for different types or severity of offenses will make such situations far easier to deal with. But how can you create a punishment that fits the crime?

Here you will simply have to use some common sense (and probably consult a lawyer). For illegal acts such as theft or violence, for example, you should make it your policy to involve authorities. ALWAYS. This way you will never face charges of unfairness or favoritism yourself. Whether it is the lowly receptionist or the VP of operations (who happens to be the son of the CEO), anyone caught engaging in illegal practices should be turned over to the proper authorities. It shouldn't matter if they're skimming money from the till, sexually harassing a coworker, or defying consumer credit act 1974 by operating with a fraudulent license (for example). All are punishable under the law and should be reported as a rule.

As for other offenses, you'll simply have to determine fitting levels of punishment (from reprimands to write-ups to firing) for the transgression. Warnings in the way of write-ups are common (and a good way to track infractions over time), and firings should be reserved for the worst types of unethical behavior. But your best bet is to set the rules, make sure that employees are well-informed of your policies, and then stick to your own mandates without fail.

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