Ethics in the workplace

In any job interview where you're asked about ethical practices and you don't know what ethics are, you can forget about the job.

Ethics are basically moral principles. An ethical person is a person who lives by a personal code of moral behavior. A person who refuses to steal or lie, for example, is doing so because of their ethics. Ethics are also generally a sense of what's right and wrong.

Ethical practices in the workplace are an extremely broad subject. In some countries, they're compulsory questions in government workplaces.

In the private sector, they've been becoming more common as more advanced work practices kick in through the various workplace HR upgrades and new training courses.

In the workplace, ethics are also behavioral principles, a standard relating to how you conduct yourself and how you deal with situations.

The introduction of ethical practices and guidelines about ethical behavior in the workplace has also been a useful training tool.

Staff are given a grounding in basic principles like honesty, responsibility, and other important ethical issues like reporting problems and impartiality when dealing with people.

Ethical principles also underlie the principles of equal employment opportunity and anti discrimination laws, so the training is good orientation.

At job interviews, you will be asked about ethical practices because it's a very relevant subject to employers.

Employers have to trust their employees to act properly. Honesty is extremely important in all places of business. Reliability and responsibility are fundamental requirements for all employers.

Practical ethics

Everybody knows about the various ethical issues in the workplace. People steal. They falsify figures. They don't report mistakes or problems because they think they'll get in trouble, so the mistakes and problems become disasters for the employer.

These are exactly the sorts of issues the interviewers will raise, in some form or another, and your answer has to be good.

  • If you noticed that your day's take was out, and you knew a friend of yours had been working on your till, what would you do?
  • If you saw someone stealing from the stock room, what should you do?
  • You're the supervisor. If a new starter begins on Monday, and you discover that your balance sheets have been totally wrong since this person started, do you blame that person?
  • You make a serious mistake on the job. What do you do to rectify the situation?

You will notice that the situations in all of these questions make you responsible for doing something about them.

You can even expect multiple questions. Some are practical, some are theoretical.

You do need to know both the practical and the theoretical parts of ethical conduct in the workplace.

Very important: When answering these questions you do need to know your stuff, and know it well. You'll have to research the ethical issues in your industry, to do this properly.

Answer the direct questions directly.

Direct questions are asked for a reason. You must answer a direct practical question (like the one about the day's take) in a direct practical way.

Stay on topic, and make sure that you're structuring the answer clearly.

Where there are established codes of ethical conduct, you can't wing it. You won't get away with that, because your answer, even if largely correct, won't refer to the guidelines properly.

  • What do you understand by the term Ethical practices in the workplace?
  • What are your responsibilities to the public, under the current government guidelines on ethical practices?
  • What are your obligations to your employer, in terms of ethical conduct?

If you feel slightly threatened by questions like these, you'll be pleased to hear your survival instincts are functioning perfectly. These are very dangerous questions.

In many cases they're also very sensitive questions. The employer may have just fired someone for costing the company a fortune in fraud, walking over to a competitor with company secrets, or putting their hands in the till for years.

People are fired every day, everywhere on Earth, for doing things which are really unethical behavior. All employers, at some time, have problems with things like this, and they take ethics in the workplace very seriously.

The correct responses to the practical ethical questions above are pretty obvious:

If you noticed that your day's take was out, and you knew a friend of yours had been working on your till, what would you do?

You find out what's wrong with the figures, and you report it to the manager, explaining what's wrong. That's no friend, putting you in the firing line, and you're ethically and legally obliged as an employee to report the problems. The most you can do is tidy up. The fact that the person who's most likely to have cause the situation is a friend of yours is quite irrelevant to the employer.

It doesn't matter if the till is or out. The till will throw the daily balance, the cash book, and the database out. If you're put in that situation, find some more intelligent friends.

If you saw someone stealing from the stock room, what should you do?

You report it, immediately. If you fail to report it, or report it too long after it occurred, you're directly involved. You have to answer the question about why you didn't report it earlier. Don't agonize about the relationship between yourself and someone who's also stealing from you, as an employee. If it costs the employer money, it costs you money, indirectly.

You're the supervisor. If a new starter begins on Monday, and you discover that your balance sheets have been totally wrong since this person started, do you blame that person?

You clearly identify the problems with the balance sheets, pin down exactly how the figures are being done, and who's supplying the figures. The new starter may well be working with incorrect data. It doesn't naturally follow that the new starter is necessarily the problem.

As a supervisor, you're ethically obliged to be fair to staff. As an employee who's responsible for this work, you're also ethically obliged to know what you're talking about, and provide the employer with the facts.

You make a serious mistake on the job. What do you do to rectify the situation?

You report it, immediately. Just do it. You're now in damage control mode, but ethically you do not have any choice whatsoever. You may or may not be able to rectify the situation yourself. You can minimize any further damage if possible, but the most important thing is that the employer is aware of the problem.

If you try to cover up, you're making an even worse mistake. Serious errors are always found, eventually. You'll also be held responsible for covering up, and you won't be too popular with managers who will be getting a lot of heat for not finding the problem sooner themselves.

If you're honest, you might get more consideration and some tolerance from your managers. If you're dishonest, you're much more likely to be heading out the door.

The theoretical questions are tougher, in some ways. You're required to prove you understand the principles of ethical practices:

What do you understand by the term Ethical practices in the workplace?

The practical definitions can vary in any industry, let alone any country. Employer requirements on this subject can also vary from detailed to general understanding of ethical practices.

You will need to research your local private sector and government guidelines, for the sake of accuracy.

Important: In many countries, ethical practices are covered by labor laws, and are part of your employment contract. You are literally legally obliged to comply with the ethical practices standards, which will be in accordance with local labor laws.

What are your responsibilities to the public, under the current government guidelines on ethical practices?

Your responsibilities will be set out in guidelines which you are expected to know almost by heart in government jobs in particular. The ethical practices are written into your statement of duties.

Your job depends on these responsibilities. You must get a copy of the guidelines, and not only be able to answer the question, but understand the answer yourself. Situations involving ethics arise all the time on the job, and you need to be very clear about your responsibilities.

What are your obligations to your employer, in terms of ethical conduct?

Your obligations are 100%, and unconditional.

You are obliged to conduct yourself according to all ethical practices, both at the level of natural expectations of the employer, and any guidelines imposed by the employer.

In many cases these are other legal obligations, too. If you're an accountant, or someone responsible for property, your obligations are very unambiguous. If you see theft, or some other crime, you're responsible for reporting it, and you're in big trouble if you don't.

Remember there's a lot of basic common sense in ethical practices.

The ethics are directly related to the job.

If you know the job, you'll understand the ethics very well, and why they're so important.

Ethics aren't unreasonable. Honesty makes sense in any business. Reliability is an obvious reason to hire anyone. Responsibility is something some people can handle well, and others don't seem able to handle at all.

Never be scared off by ethical questions, however they're asked.

Don't underestimate their importance, and you'll find they make a lot of sense.