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Business Ethics

Are Your Managers Undermining Ethical Behavior in Your Workplace?


By Josh Young Mar 30, 2017

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Not only can a supervisor have a major influence on how your employees feel about your company, but can they can also have a tremendous impact -- both through their direct and indirect actions -- on how seriously your staff react to corporate policies and ethics guidelines.

How Could Your Managers Be Undermining Company Ethics?

Setting unachievable goals

In pursuit of growth, businesses will often set aggressive growth targets for staff performance, such as increasing sales by 30 percent over the previous year. And while a well executed plan coupled with sufficient support can work miracles, when employees feel pressured to achieve the impossible, ethical behavior is routinely one of the first casualties.

Employees of the Veterans Health Administration in Phoenix, Arizona succumbed to this lapse. Facing pressure to reduce wait times for medical appointments among veterans receiving support -- one of the main performance indicators used for salary increases and bonuses by the government office -- staff began keeping "secret" waiting lists and not entering patients into electronic tracking systems.

While employees reported average 24-day waiting periods, patients were actually waiting 115 days for appointments. And 40 veterans died while awaiting care.

When managers set unreasonable goals for their staff or don't provide sufficient resources or support to get the job done, they are often encouraging staff to bend or break rules to achieve the desired result.

Neglecting ethical discussions

To limit the creep of corruption and unethical behavior in your business, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) identifies the participation of senior-level management as one of the most important factors in the creation of an honest and transparent culture.

Encourage your managers to frequently bring up ethical considerations in discussions with regular staff. When evaluating new processes or guidelines, reflect on potential conflicts of interest. Even better, talk about positive examples of ethical behavior within your business. By highlighting both successes and failures, managers can reinforce how ethics is "the norm" for your day-to-day operations

Providing insufficient oversight

Last year, Wells Fargo was mired in a well-publicized ethics scandal that involved the fraudulent creation of roughly 1.5 million bank accounts. Sales personnel throughout the business were rewarded for the number of new accounts that they opened; however, the organization put in no oversight mechanism to monitor this incentive program.

Without sufficient management and accountability from direct supervisors, your employees will sometimes make poor ethical choices that can have long-ranging impact for your business and your reputation.

Discouraging dissent

Obviously managers should not tolerate open rebellion or undermining activities. However, to encourage an ethical environment, managers need to help create a safe space where employees can feel free to disagree or point out problems.

If a direct supervisor always reacts with annoyance when an employee raises a concern or problem with plans or operations, that employee will quickly learn to keep their mouth shut. But by being genuinely approachable, managers can encourage staff to discuss with them when a potential conflict of interest or ethical oversight arises.

Not responding to complaints

Ignoring a problem will rarely make it go away and can often make things worse. At least, that's what a grocery chain discovered when it was forced to pay out $487,500 for failing to respond to the sexual harassment complaints of seven of its employees.

These workers repeatedly reported to supervisors and security staff that they were routinely being harassed by a customer, but management refused to act, stating they would only do so if they personally saw the harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) disagreed with this strategy, leading to the harsh financial penalty.

In several areas, particularly harassment and discrimination, managers bear increased responsibility to enforce company policies and oversee repercussions when guidelines are violated.

The Next Step

Of course, these ethical lapses are made even worse when managers actively participate in the inappropriate behavior. But by reinforcing the importance of proper conduct among your supervisory staff, you can help them foster an ethical culture within your business.

Alongside an encouragement to be more proactive in ethical matters, you should consider providing managers -- even all of your staff -- with regular training to help map out what is and is not appropriate behavior in the workplace. Armed with the necessary knowledge and tools, your management team can serve as an effective front-line defense against corruption and malpractice.

To learn more about how our workplace code of conduct and business ethics courses can help your company, request a demo today.

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