How to Be Ethical at Work

Making the Right Call For You and Your Team

Did you ever do something at work that went against your instincts or "better judgment"?

You may have "tweaked" a set of figures to enhance the quality of your performance or "overlooked" a borderline test result on a project. Or, maybe you just used the last of the coffee in the office kitchen and didn't replace it.

Most of us will have committed at least one small "sin" that we felt bad about. And, it's possible that our behavior could be regarded as unethical on occasion.

Ethics are the principles that govern the conduct of individuals or groups. They are the rules that tell you how you should behave. Simply put, if you do the right thing, your behavior is ethical. If not, it's likely unethical.

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And your personal ethics reflect your core values. They are the things that matter to you, such as honesty and integrity. They guide how you want to live, so that you remain true to yourself and to your employer.

In this article, we look at how easy it is to fall into unethical behavior, and we focus on how to make good, ethical decisions and to build an ethical team.

The Slippery Slope to Unethical Behavior

Most people think that they act ethically, but it really is easy to slip into unethical behavior.

For example, you might have looked at the sports news or done a little online shopping in company time. It may not have seemed a big deal, but the reality is that it is unethical. It's not "quite right."

People also make small ethical compromises for reasons that they think are good. You might tell a "white lie" to a customer because it avoids losing a sale. Or you might "talk up" your accomplishments to a new manager to secure a promotion.

Temptation is everywhere, and it's strong. But, if you give in to something that goes against your personal ethics, you'll know. And you'll likely regret it.

Some ethical lapses can affect your colleagues negatively. These can be minor but annoying misdemeanors, such as leaving a paper jam in a printer for someone else to clear. Or, they can be unacceptable actions, such as lying to discredit a workplace rival, or bullying a team member.

More serious behavior, such as covering up irregular accounting or discriminating against a particular group, can severely affect the whole business.

Whatever the scale or circumstance of any poor ethical decision you make, it can have a corrosive effect on you. You may start to get a "taste" for cutting corners. But, sooner or later this will damage your reputation.

When you start playing "fast-and-loose" with even minor ethical calls, you stand a good chance of damaging your working relationships and the cohesion of your team.

If, on the other hand, you are clear that you are serious about ethics, you'll likely enhance your personal brand. People you work with will come to see you as reliable and trustworthy.

How to Make Ethical Decisions

So, how do you ensure that you get ethical decisions right?

In their 2008 book "Ethics for the Real World," ethics experts Ronald Howard and Clinton Korver suggest that people draw up their own formal ethical codes. It can be a simple document, but it needs to be an honest reflection of your core values.

It should contain a series of "I will" statements that commit you to certain standards of behavior. Examples could include, "I will not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexuality," and, "I will be honest about any mistakes that I make."

Be sure to have a basic list in your mind of unethical behaviors that you will not take part in, whether you record these in a document or not.


Don't let your personal code get out of hand. You could take up a strong moral position on lots of issues, but life's too short to address them all. Stick to what is important and likely to come up most often in your working life.


Remember to address legal requirements and your employer's policies when drawing up a personal code of conduct.

For example, take care to understand anti-corruption laws and to respect your company's policy on Gifts in the Workplace as the difference between a gift and a bribe may not be completely clear. (See the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and the U.K. Bribery Act 2010.)

A personal code of ethical behavior must work in any situation and regardless of the person you are dealing with, if it's to mean anything.

For example, don't show someone too much favor just because you like him or her. And, when you're working with someone you really don't like, you need to be sure that you treat him fairly and with respect at least.

Dealing ethically with someone who does not always behave well himself may even have a positive effect on him and can help him to improve his own team work, communication and performance.


One measure of whether a course of action is right is to ask yourself, "Would I be embarrassed or worried if my boss or co-workers knew what I was doing?" If the answer is "yes," you likely shouldn't be doing it.

How to Build an Ethical Team

If you're a manager, let your team know that you will not tolerate poor standards of behavior. This doesn't mean micromanaging or "ruling with a rod of iron," but ensuring that everyone knows what behaviors are acceptable, and what aren't.

First, ensure that the rules you draw up conform to labor law and your organization's policy.

Have a few general ethical guides that everyone signs up to, such as "We will not tell our customers that our software does stuff that it doesn't." Avoid a draconian rulebook, though: in a healthy organization, people do the right thing because they want to, not because they have to.

Your guidelines will likely not cover every eventuality. In cases that aren't specifically addressed, you'll need to be guided by your own sense of what's right and wrong, alongside a fair judgment of what makes behavior good or bad.

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Consider incorporating ethical conduct into a team charter, so that everyone knows and agrees what standards are expected of them.

Above all, be consistent. It may be tempting to turn a blind eye to a long-time, valued team member who has a one-off lapse. But, if you do, remember that it may not go unnoticed by others. Making everyone subject to the same rules builds trust and openness.

You should also be aware of people who have negative personality traits that make them prone to unethical behavior. When confronted by arrogance, self-obsession or power play, keep your cool. Ensure that you resist being manipulated by staying true to your own, and your team's, values.

For example, if a salesperson on your team is telling "half truths" to close deals, raise your concerns with her, even if it's difficult to do so. It may be going too far to recommend to senior bosses that she be "let go." But, it would be appropriate to emphasize the organization's standards to her, to provide additional training and to be a good role model.

Poor Business Ethics

Most businesses have guidelines for ethical behavior at work. Some are pretty tough, particularly in the financial and legal sectors. Others are more relaxed and leave most day-to-day decisions to individual managers.

Ethical corporate practice can have a wide impact. According to "Return on Character," a 2015 book by Fred Kiel, the benefits to organizations whose senior management give a strong ethical lead are significant.

Companies whose leaders scored well in four categories (integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion) were likely to have return-on-assets percentages five times higher than organizations where those characteristics were not highly prioritized. You can read more about this research in our Expert Interview with the author.

On occasion, though, the whole ethical structure of companies – even large ones – can fall apart. You'll not likely have to deal with the fallout from such a catastrophic failure yourself, but there may well be times when you feel that your own ethical values are at odds with those of your managers.

It's important to speak up if you feel that you're under pressure to act against your own ethical values. But be sure to get high-quality advice from your HR department, employee helpline, or a professional body or union, if you feel unable to discuss things with your manager.


If you feel that you have to "blow the whistle," proceed with extreme caution. Be certain of the facts before acting in a way that could seriously affect your career and the organization that you work for.

Key Points

Ethics are the rules that tell individuals and groups how to behave according to their core values. Developing and formalizing your own moral code will enable you to uphold your own standards of behavior and enhance your reputation.

When dealing with other people, it's important to be even-handed, even when you find it difficult. But, when pressure to do the wrong thing builds from above, be clear that you won't do accept it.

Don't be naive about the consequences of standing your ground. Get support and advice from reliable sources, such as your HR department or professional body.


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