Do you have an ethical dilemma? Write to The Ethics Coach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Employees at my restaurant are taking food home without paying for it and are not charging their friends for drinks. I made it clear that I'll fire people if the behavior continues, and I bought locks for the refrigerators. However, I remain angry. How do I trust my staff after this betrayal?
A: Employees who help themselves to food (or office supplies) don't think they're stealing; they see such things as perks, something they've earned. Besides, nobody will miss a burger here or a pack of binder clips there, right? And employees may be giving away drinks in an effort to impress their friends.
Viewing these actions as a personal betrayal fuels anger that gets in the way of your leadership. Rather than asking how you can trust your staffers, figure out how you can communicate effectively that their behavior negatively affects the restaurant's success--and their future with the company. Trust is a two-way street. If you express clearly what you expect, offer feedback that reinforces positive behavior and mentor their development in providing great customer service (which, you should let them know, will probably increase their tips), you'll help create a workplace where mutual trust is possible.
Q: An employee's pregnancy has become her primary focus and topic of conversation at work. Other staffers have made it clear that they think her productivity has dropped. One even commented that our business can't afford somebody who isn't serious about her job and may not come back after maternity leave. I'm uncomfortable talking with her about her performance because I don't want to say anything that could be considered discriminatory. What's the right thing to do?
A: Many people handle pregnancy or other life events (divorce, aging parents, family illness) without a ripple in their work environment. Others need some help staying on track at work when life intervenes. You need to talk to your employee about her job priorities, deadlines and ways you can help her meet expectations. Focus on her work, not on her pregnancy.
Since you shied away from the conversation when her productivity first declined, you haven't helped her (or your company) succeed--but there's still time. Remind her that she is a valuable team member you and others rely on, talk specifics about what you want to see improve in her work and find out what in her job interests her most so you can help to reengage her. If she brings up the pregnancy, listen for concerns you can address that will help support her in doing a great job.
As for your other employee's take on the situation, you ignored a discriminatory comment by one employee about another and sent a message that what he said was OK. It wasn't. Circle back to him and ask how he thinks gossip and sexism can be reduced at the company. Make it clear that you believe both undermine teamwork and productivity--for everybody. And, in the future, move quickly to check in with employees to offer support when needed. That's the best way to demonstrate your dedication not only to teamwork but also to the individuals who make up your team.
Q: Is it unethical for employees to withhold information from company executives that could, potentially, make the company a lot of money? I'm an entrepreneur, and I sent my project idea (which has huge financial potential) to a company president in care of his PR director. I've learned that she failed to pass on the idea.
A: If no promises were made, then none were broken. Every business is focused on making money, but when outsiders send in unsolicited ideas without understanding first how (or whether) a company wants to receive them, it isn't respectful, and it gives busy people no reason to take you seriously. Furthermore, batting the term "unethical" around when a stranger doesn't buy into your agenda or blaming a staffer for dropping a ball that was never in play won't get your idea heard. In fact, it is mean-spirited.
You need to take responsibility and find out the name of the go-to person for inventors or potential collaborators to contact. If the PR person will take your call, consider apologizing for your zealousness and ask if she'd be willing to fill you in on the best way to approach the company.