Knowing the signs of bad ethics in the workplace can help you prevent costly violations. Here's what to look out for.

Not all publicity is good publicity. That's what major players in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and the corporate world have learned through recent allegations of ethical violations. Sexual harassment, fraud, embezzlement: It's all ugly. Taking preventative measures to promote ethics in the workplace may be able to help your organization prevent issues from developing and quickly mitigate them if they do.

Look For Signs

Certain signs may tip you off that something unethical could be happening at your company. If you see these signs, ask HR or your legal counsel for advice on finding an appropriate way to follow up. It may be nothing, but it's best to know for sure. Being proactive can help your business thrive.

With sexual harassment, signs include:

  • Demeaning comments: If an employee makes jokes or condescending comments about a protected characteristic (such as race or gender) this should make you worry about potential complaints of harassment. The EEOC defines unlawful harassment as offensive conduct that either serves as a condition of continued employment, or is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive. Even if the conduct in question may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment, it can still damage employee productivity and morale. It's essential that all employees treat each other with respect.
  • Avoidance: Have you noticed that employees seem put out when you ask them to work with a certain team member? Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's a performance issue. But maybe said team member is making people uncomfortable. No matter what the underlying issue is, it's best to find out.

With other ethical considerations, you may need to look beyond someone's success to determine if scandal is on the horizon.

  • Corner-cutting: People under the gun with unrealistic goals may cut corners because they perceive that something is on the line. Look out for coalition-building against potential whistleblowers. This may lead to hostile and discriminatory work environments. Business owners should ensure they have policies that encourage employees to report suspicious or potential unlawful conduct without fear of retaliation.
  • Cocooning: Teams isolated by design or by accident are ripe for corruption as immediate supervisors tend to have more influence than do conduct policies. Plus, isolated teams that lack accountability have more ability to hide unethical behavior from others in the organization.
  • Missing or late paperwork: Is a certain individual or team always late with their budget reports? Do they consistently "not know" where forms are? This could be a ruse designed to cover up something they don't want you to see. Hold your entire workforce accountable for timely and accurate reporting and recordkeeping and employ processes to review and audit information.

Live in Prevention Mode

The best way to prevent ethical violations is to educate against them and be consistent in how you follow up and discipline when questionable behaviors and practices come to light. Getting together with your counsel to develop a solid code of conduct should be your first step. Making the code a policy is next. Present the code during onboarding and ensure that current employees have read and understood the policy. Make signed statements a part of every employee file. And have them review and re-acknowledge the policy at least annually (or anytime the policy is revised).

If feasible, budget for at least one speaker a year to educate everyone on ethics in the workplace. Topics to be covered could include what constitutes discrimination, harassment and retaliatory practices. Management, including team leaders, should also be taught what to look for and how to intervene and report impermissible conduct. This may seem an expensive proposition, but the cost of a potential lawsuit likely far exceeds whatever money you'll lay out for preventing a scandal.

Tags: Employee Guidelines Employee Handbooks