The evolution of workplace ethics: from Norma Rae to corporate hacking

When we think about workplace ethics, we think about a set of rules, a code that governs an organization’s operations and behavior towards its competition, industry, clients, service providers and employees. We’re not just talking about a laundry list of legal do’s and don’ts, but a deeper interpretation that affects the very foundations that guide behavior and determine how decisions are made and by what criteria, including qualities like morality, integrity, trustworthiness, compassion, respect and social responsibility – the things that are not only part of an organization’s brand but define it.

history workplace ethics

Sharing your opinion with your wallet

Think about the companies you do business with. Would you make a purchase at a store you knew to be unethical? Honour, accountability and trust are the guidelines we use to choose whom we do business with. As consumers, we let our cash talk for us. In the workplace, employee performance and behavior respond to a top-tier manager’s unethical behavior. If a boss is behaving badly, the entire moral climate of an organization can change. Employees may not only lose respect for management, but for the entire organization. They become disillusioned and disengaged when corporate culture is inconsistent or conflicts with their personal values and moral compass. More often than not, they seek other employment.

A brief history in workplace ethics

Ethics did not always have a role in organizations. Once upon a time it was the responsibility of religious and social institutions, the same locations where issues of child labour, fair wages and harsh working conditions were shared by the populace. Labour movements evolved into political and economical strategies like President Truman’s 1950s Fair Deal, which included civil rights, fair income and social responsibility. The 1960s witnessed the rise of the individual in the workplace were tumultuous as cultural values shifted dramatically. The decade redefined social issues and behavioural conduct; employers responded by establishing codes of conduct in their organizations. The 1970s and 1980s saw tensions between employers and employees heighten as employees became increasingly value driven and collaboration became the operational standard. In the 1990s, organizations whose business practices included poor and cavalier ethical decisions around product standards – for example, companies involved in tobacco, food manufacturing, and oil and gas industries - were called out publicly and in courtrooms. Society officially proclaimed that business ethics would follow organizations into the 21st century and organizations would be scrutinized carefully going forward.[1]

Workplace ethics in modern society

Since the turn of the century, business ethics have been informed by the rise of electronic communications and social media. Ethical dilemmas around issues of financial misconduct, cyber-crime and privacy are only increasing, as is the struggle to define and manage ethics in a workplace that includes increasing social, cultural and gender diversity, changes in how work is done, and the dependence on mobile devices to conduct business.

Last year’s data breach of website Ashley Madison not only exposed millions of users’ email addresses but also that a large number of users registered for the site using a company account - technology belonging to their employers.  “Among the workplace e-mail domains revealed in the Ashley Madison hack were those belonging to Canadian public sector employees at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, including the Justice Department and Canada Revenue Agency, as well as members of the RCMP, the Canadian Armed Forces, and at least one MP. In the United States, leaked e-mail addresses belonged to employees of Fortune 500 companies, such as Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Apple Inc. and Bank of America, as well as U.S. government employees.”[2] This tells us no organization – public or private – is immune as long as it’s run by humans. It also underlines that in many cases, the distinction between work life and private life is virtually non-existent; maybe that’s what you get when an employee is expected to be available 24/7 through accessible technology.[3] Employers are challenged to define ethical standards and deal with complex issues like these. But deal with them, they must. Clarity, communication, accountability and transparency are the keys to establishing a sound ethical workplace.

Drawing an ethical line in the sand

Create an environment where employees feel safe reporting unethical behavior and where they can do so anonymously. Provide ethics training at all levels of the organization. That way, everyone knows what everyone knows. Make sure you deal with anyone who violates your company’s ethical code quickly and appropriately. If necessary, ‘fire them loudly,’ so everyone understands unethical behavior will not be tolerated and your organization doesn’t just pay lip service to the concept.

Workplace ethics come from establishing core values that lead to a culture of integrity and respect, internally and externally. Like water, it flows downstream from leadership that sets good examples to all levels of the organization. Make your organization one where character counts. The most successful organizations understand that workplace ethics are the foundation on which profits and longevity, and employee engagement and commitment are built.




[1] http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/022615/how-have-business-ethics-evolved-over-time.asp
[2] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/life-at-work/ethical-issues-and-e-mail-accounts-in-the-workplace/article28396683/
[3] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/life-at-work/ethical-issues-and-e-mail-accounts-in-the-workplace/article28396683/

about the author

Kristen Smalley - Content Manager

As someone who firmly believes that variety is the spice of life, content marketing has been a natural career path for me. Every day brings a chance to think creatively and learn about exciting new topics. Whether it's tackling content on employment trends, how to handle tough interview questions, or keeping safe in the workplace, there's always interesting topics waiting to be explored in the world of work!

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