The Ethics Coach's Top 3 Strategies for Creating an Ethical Workplace

The Ethics Coach's Top 3 Strategies for Creating an Ethical Workplace
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Magazine Contributor
The Ethics Coach
4 min read

This story appears in the June 2014 issue of . Subscribe »

Do you have an ethical dilemma? Write to The Ethics Coach at

Q: I work for an executive search firm. One of my longtime client companies was forced by its parent to make cost-cutting layoffs. The cuts included two talented people my firm had recruited for the client less than three months earlier. Both individuals had left good jobs to accept my client's offer. The client says he won't pay us for these placements or work with us in the future if we challenge him. Should we accept this treatment in hopes of an ongoing relationship?

A: There are two ethical issues here: a bullying client and the matter of what is owed to the recruits whose careers were upended.

Staying in a relationship with a bully is demoralizing. But business emergencies happen, and your client may have been blindsided by this one and reacted badly. Or this may reflect how he acts under pressure. If you can get the lines of communication reopened, offer the client ideas for ways you could have worked through the problem together instead of you being at the receiving end of an ultimatum. Talking it through will help you figure that out and, with the help of the right questions and a list of possible solutions, might keep your recruits from ending up in the crosshairs in the future. Your reputation is at stake.

You need to reach a common understanding and agreement in order for trust to be restored. How would you work together in the future if the parent company has demands that release people you've just placed? Will these recruits be treated fairly? What is fair payment for your company in this situation and in subsequent ones should they occur?

While it isn't your fault the new hires found themselves on the street, their careers were affected as a result of your recruiting them for jobs that weren't what they appeared. The right thing for you to do is to volunteer to help them find new jobs. If there are no potential fits at your other client companies, consider recommending the people to other recruiters and introducing them to relevant members of your network. And ask them how else you can be helpful in handling this career disruption. Your efforts may help turn their misfortune into the best thing that ever happened to them--and your reputation.

Q: Don't entrepreneurs want to hire people hungry to succeed? My goal as a new college graduate is to make as much money as quickly as possible, no matter how I do it. My business ethics professor says this is unethical. Is it?

A: I hope for your sake that you have the chance to work for a patient boss who is a good mentor so you can rethink your definition of success.

It's a liability to hire someone not committed to ethical behavior. This question reinforces why it's so important for entrepreneurs to give prospective employees--especially young ones--the chance to elucidate their beliefs about the way the world works (or, more so, the way it should work).

Some questions for possible hires: What are two things you learned about yourself from a mentor? What insights did you get from classes, internships and jobs about handling conflicting pressures? What setbacks have you had, and how did you address them? What kind of effort goes into working in an entrepreneurial environment--and what are the potential rewards? And, a must-ask: Give an example of a time when rules or policies got in the way of what you wanted to achieve, then describe how you handled it.

Q: As a small-business owner, what are the top three things I can do to nurture an ethical environment?

A: Entrepreneurs whose actions make it clear that employees are their most important asset create an environment in which employees feel respected, appreciated and inspired to contribute their best efforts. This affects the quality of products, how customers are treated and ethical behavior.

While an entrepreneur's time is scarce, these three actions have a high ROI:

  • Offer ongoing communication about the company's values, what you expect of your employees and your idea of a respectful workplace.
  • Encourage employees to spot and address problems early on, and make it safe for them to admit and fix mistakes.
  • Give employees feedback on their strengths and contributions to advancing company values, and coach them in meeting their own professional goals. To mend gaps in their experience, train employees and help them develop plans and timetables that will benefit them and the company.
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