Are You Forcing Your Employees to Be Unethical?

Pressure to make more money faster, and to pit one employee against another in forced ranking systems, has always seemed like a recipe for unethical behavior. When employees in companies that pressure them in these ways act unethically or illegally to meet financial benchmarks, or act cruelly toward fellow employees, I’m never surprised.

A recent survey by the Institute of Business Ethics found that, indeed, companies can push employees to act unethically. Many of these same employees doubtless have ethics training, but the medium being the message, the company’s imperatives to employees undercut the ethics message. “You want us to act ethically,” the employees must think to themselves, “yet you give us near-to-impossible benchmarks to achieve, and have created a culture in which we’re pitted against colleagues, rather than thinking of one another as being on the same team.”

The Institute of Business Ethics’ survey was analyzed by Reboot Digital Agency, which found specific pressures that can lead to unethical behavior. Some 35 percent said they act unethically (using business resources for personal use, bullying, fraud, discrimination, misreporting of hours, etc.) because they are under-resourced. Thirty-four percent said they sometimes do unethical things because of time pressure, and 28 percent said they were just “following the boss’ orders.” Other top drivers of unethical behavior: being asked to take shortcuts, peer pressure to “to be a team player,” and pressure to “help the organization perform better.”

Are your employees under-resourced? What does under-resourced mean in your organization? In the business I’m in, editing and journalism, practitioners have gotten into trouble in recent years for failing to note everyone who contributed to reporting on a story, or taking credit for another writer’s work. That kind of unethical behavior could just be due to laziness, or it could be that in a hyper-competitive environment, in which they don’t have the time and true team they need to do work, they feel pressured to give themselves as much credit and attention as possible.

Does your company provide resources, in the form of individual recognition and morale, so employees don’t feel the need to undercut one another in a push to stand apart from the crowd?

Another reason in my business that writers and reporters sometimes take unethical shortcuts is time pressure. They’re faced with such tight deadlines that it’s easier to take another person’s work and pass it off as your own than it is to come up with original work. Or they don’t adequately fact-check because of lack of time, and end up with a story full of inaccuracies.

It’s easy to stand under the protective shield of the unethical manager who asked you to do whatever it was that ended up being unethical. But the “just following orders” argument doesn’t usually protect the individual who acted unethically, or the company. The manager is likely to deny he or she ever asked the employee to do any such thing, and whoever’s idea it was, it happened, and now the company is responsible for the fallout. When an employee who has been found to have acted unethically tells executives and Human Resources he was just following his manager’s orders, what is the next step the company should take? What’s the protocol at your company when this situation arises?

It seems the only protocol is to make it company policy that every employee is responsible for his or her own actions, and upholding company ethics policies, even if the unethical behavior was instructed by a manager. The employee would be responsible for reporting the manager’s unethical directive to the department head or another executive. The challenge is it’s frightening to report on your boss. Is there a way to make this feel safe for employees? What happens when the executive goes back to the manager and the manager denies ever making the request?

Sometimes a well-intentioned directive from the top of an organization—such as telling all employees they are responsible for reaching a particular goal, like becoming a leader in all the categories of products the company sells—can have unintended consequences, especially if substantial financial rewards are attached to the directive. On the one hand, generous bonuses for reaching company goals can be a great thing, pushing employees to work harder and more effectively. But, on the other hand, it could spur employees to do whatever it takes—ethically or not—to make the goals and get the extra money. One solution is to make sure all employees have adequate base pay, so the base pay is fair and livable enough not to create a sense of financial desperation.

There are many reasons people act unethically, and often it is no one’s fault but the person him or herself. But sometimes a person, who might not otherwise have acted unethically, is put into a situation in which he or she feels there is no other choice. How do you teach employees they always have a choice? And how do you ensure you’re not asking the impossible? When you ask the impossible, employees may do everything—including violating ethics—to make it possible.

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