How to Define Ethical and Unethical Behaviour in the Workplace

employee's behaviour in the workplace
These are some examples of ethical and unethical behaviours in the workplace to help you analyse your employees' demeanour at work.

There are many things that talents consider when choosing a company to join. The same goes for employees to decide whether to stay or leave. Although salary is on top of the list, employees tend to be more productive and happier working in an ethical workplace environment.

According to SHRM, an ethical workplace environment prioritises employee rights, fair procedures and equity in pay and promotion. Great companies promote tolerance, compassion, loyalty and honesty when treating customers and employees.

Workplace ethics are a set of values, moral principles and standards that both employers and employees have to obey. Generally, these are written in the book of conduct. However, some general workplace ethics are unwritten.

These are the common behaviours in the workplace that everyone must obey or avoid.

Ethical behaviour in the workplace

Ethical manners can increase employees’ performance, job satisfaction, loyalty and trust. 

Indirectly, it shapes your organisational citizenship behaviours (i.e. altruism, conscientiousness, civic virtue, sportsmanship and courtesy).

Here are some examples of ethical behaviour in the workplace:

1. Obey the company's rules and regulations

HR reminds employees on ethical behavior in the workplace

To obey commands is the simplest act of workplace ethics. Employees will receive a handbook that serves as a guide, listing the working hour, dress code, etc.

Sometimes, some employees get too excited when accepting the job and don’t read the guide. HR should remind future employees to read the rules and regulations carefully to avoid deferring them in the future.

2. Develop professional relationships

Whether you’re a startup, SME or multinational company, professional relationships are key. Good connections between colleagues, managers and downline reports determine how you respect and trust others.

It’s also vital for employees to maintain relationships with other professionals outside the workplace, such as investors, vendors, clients, potential clients and business partners. Not only does it reflects your professionalism, but also your behaviour in the workplace.

3. Practise professional behaviour

The way people talk, behave and treat others in the workplace should be professional. Shouting and cursing at others is unacceptable, even when feeling angry. Coming to work with a shabby appearance doesn’t look great and will cost the employee their reputation.

A professional attitude and ethical behavior in the workplace also translates to these practices: 

  • Delivering quality work on time
  • Asking for possible deadline extensions before starting the project (when necessary) 
  • Replying to the work emails or chats timely (during office hours)

4. Practise integrity, honesty, transparency

transparency and honesty as workplace ethics

Integrity is having strong moral principles and following them at all times. Even when nobody’s watching or you’re being pressured to do otherwise. Going over someone else’s files when he forgets to lock the screen and is away is unethical. It goes along with honesty and transparency. 

Honesty in the workplace is telling the truth even when you’re in a difficult situation. In business discussions or casual conversations with colleagues, bear in mind that being honest doesn’t mean one has to be brutally honest, resulting in embarrassment or others being hurt. Be honest, but be kind.

Transparency in the workplace helps employees to share ideas, have healthy debates and overcome difficulties as individuals or a team. As for companies, transparency is a foundation of a strong relationship with customers. 

The more transparent a company, the more likely customers are to trust its product or service. Hence, it’s crucial to practice workplace ethics. 

5. Accountability

Someone’s careless mistake or poor decision may cause trouble for the entire department or the whole company. In an ethical workplace environment, employees accept responsibilities made as a company, admit their mistakes to all affected and accept the consequences.

Unethical behaviour in the workplace

Unethical behaviour is any action at work that goes against the prevailing moral norms of a community. It creates a toxic environment and brings negative impacts to others. In the workplace, unethical behaviour can take multiple forms and have various targets.

Here are some examples of unethical behaviour in the workplace:

1. Misusing company time

playing phone in the office is considered an unethical behavior in the workplace

Misusing company time could be in the form of slacking during the working hour. 

They may be online shopping, watching movies, scrolling social media or covering for a colleague who shows up late.

2. Taking credit for others' hard work

Taking credit for your colleague’s idea or hard work will hinder them from getting a promotion, bonus or commendation for a job well done. It’s very easy for managers to take credit for their downline report’s work when reporting to the management. 

Once the employee finds out, they will feel demotivated and hesitate to share ideas that could benefit the company in the future. Hence, one should not conduct this unethical behaviour in the workplace. 

3. Abusive behaviour

Companies with an ethical workplace environment prevent abusive behaviour from happening. While office brawl rarely happens, verbal abuse often occurs. The perpetrator could be anyone, from managers, salespeople, to customer service officers. 

Someone may fail to meet the KPI for the second time, a client may be fussy or a customer may curse on the phone when complaining. No matter what the reason is, using abusive words towards colleagues and customers should be avoided.

4. Stealing from the office

an employee stealing resources from the office

Another unethical behaviour in the workplace is stealing. Things provided in the office should stay in the office and be used for work purposes unless stated otherwise. 

It’s ok to bring the company’s laptop home to work remotely or finish a report, but not the stationery. You can eat as many snacks or fruits from the pantry but never bring them home for your children. The same goes for office printers. They’re not for employees to print posters or flight tickets.

5. Extending the lunch break

Employees have the freedom to do anything they want during the lunch break. They can work out at the gym, go for interviews, catch up with old friends or work on their side hustle. 

However, sometimes employees take advantage of this freedom by extending the break. Some of the common excuses are traffic jams, long queues and sudden rain.

Also, there may be a colleague who’s always late or does online shopping during working hours. But, people tend to turn a blind eye to ‘minor’ unethical behaviour in the workplace. They want to avoid conflicts and are afraid of being perceived as a ‘busybody’. 

In short

Therefore, HR should remind all employees to re-read the handbook at least once every year to refresh their memory or conduct workshops about ethical and unethical behaviour in the workplace. 

For managers, address the issue right away when you see your downline reports do unethical behaviour (do it privately) to prevent them from repeating the same mistake. 

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