A Proactive Approach to Addressing Unethical Behavior in the Workplace

Smaller companies migh not have formal procedures for accountablity. Here's why maintaining high standards is a good long-term practice.

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By Burton Goldfield

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While it may not rise to the level of being illegal, unethical behavior in the workplace can have serious consequences if unaddressed. And it can create a toxic work environment in which your employees and business ultimately suffer.

When the authors of Crucial Accountability gave an online survey to more than 900 working people in 2013, the three most common unethical workplace behaviors cited were taking credit for someone else's work, indulging in extra long breaks and calling in sick when actually well. One-third of the respondents reported having witnessed at least one of these violations the week prior to participating the survey.

Moreover, with the 63 percent of the survey respondents who witnessed unethical behavior, only half of the time was the misdeed reported. When asked why this was the case, four main reasons were cited by survey participants: It might have damaged their career. It would have made the offender harder to work with. They didn't think they would be taken seriously. Or they weren't sure how to bring up their concerns.

At large businesses, a human resources department or manager can provide a way for employees to voice their concerns about unethical behavior of colleagues and provide policies, procedures and training. At smaller businesses with few resources and little or no HR support, creating an avenue for reporting or disclosing unethical behavior is challenging, as is putting in place the proper guidance for addressing such behavior.

If your business lacks robust HR support, it's critical for employees to have an easy way to report their concerns and for your company to put in place policies, protocol and training related to unethical behavior. Entrepreneurs can take the following steps to proactively address unethical behavior at work:

1 Create a code of ethics.

Set the tone for behavior in your workplace by creating a code of ethics. A code of ethics establishes the values that are important to a business and creates a common framework for understanding the boundaries within the organization.

Codes of ethics should be written in broad, idealistic terms to communicate the company's ethical vision, yet be succinct enough to be contained in a values statement. If it makes sense, include ethical expectations in the company's mission statement and employee handbooks.

Be sure to involve key employees in the process of drafting and formalizing the code of ethics. This will ensure that leaders are on board with and committed to the values.

Related: J.D. Power: How I Stayed True to My Values Over 50 Years

2. Establish a protocol.

Include in your code of ethics instructions about how to report unethical behavior. For example, set up an anonymous ethics hotline as well as a clear protocol for reporting, such as requesting a private meeting with the appropriate manager or supervisor.

Additionally, if a concern or violation is reported and the company lacks internal HR resources, ensure that the person tasked with responding is the furthest removed from the concern.

Delegating someone as far removed as possible sets a tone that the concern will be taken seriously and creates trust in your company's ability to address the matter fairly. If retaining an appropriate internal person isn't an option, consider investing in an external HR partner who can bring impartiality to the process.

Related: 5 Ways to Help Build Your Integrity

3. Empower employees.

Grant staff the know-how to appropriately identify and handle ethics violations. Accomplish this by implementing ethics-training programs for all new and existing employees to increase the effectiveness of the code.

Ethics courses are available through books and other written materials as well as through online, private or live instruction trainings. You might even choose to tie to ethical behavior some compensation incentives, such as an end-of-the-year bonus or additional paid time off, to further increase the code's relevance to employees.

4. Continuously review the code.

Keeping the code updated is an important step in keeping a company's ethics top of mind. Each year, share copies of the code of ethics with every employee or communicate it through a brown bag lunch and learn or workshop.

Ensure that your employees confirm their understanding of the code by requiring them to sign a form of acknowledgement afterward. In doing so, you'll proactively set up an atmosphere, reinforced by both formal and informal measures, that promotes the values you've set forth.

If you disregard the importance of developing an ethical culture, lawsuits, high turnover, low morale and even the demise of your business could result. A smart business leader should champion a written code of ethics from the outset, establish protocol and continuously review and promote these guidelines.

This will show staff that you're serious about creating a positive and ethical workplace. At the same time, you'll also set clear, specific expectations that everyone can understand. Ultimately, the outcome will result in better business processes, as well as happier and more secure employees and therefore a more successful business.

Related: American Apparel Tries On Something New: Ethics.

Burton Goldfield

President and CEO, TriNet

Burton Goldfield is president and CEO of San Leandro, Calif.-based TriNet, an HR outsourcing partner to small businesses. He is responsible for setting TriNet's overall corporate strategy and providing guidance regarding its human capital offerings.

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