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Luke Andreski

Phase 3 | Andreski Solutions Ltd

Writer - Business Ethics

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Ethics in the workplace: how to tackle unethical behaviour

How to recognise unethical behaviour at work and what we can do about it.

The issue of tackling unethical workplace behaviour is of considerable significance for HR professionals, and there’s extensive literature discussing this from an HR perspective.

Less well documented is how we tackle unethical workplace behaviour from a personal standpoint. What are we to do as individuals, whether that’s in the front office, shop floor or boardroom, if we are personally confronted with such behaviour?

Let’s approach this issue initially by asking how unethical behaviour can be identified. 

Recognising unethical behaviour

Ethics is crucially important in the workplace. I make the case for this here. Earlier in this series I also highlight the importance of the individual within businesses of all kinds. Your full persona, the total you, is a vital element of any organisation’s human capital. 

This does not mean, however, that everything we contribute to a business can be considered ethically positive. While only a tiny minority of colleagues are deliberately unethical, we are all capable of unethical activity almost ‘by accident’. 

Our central moral objectives set us on the road toward a clear identification of what is or is not moral behaviour.

Habit, custom or thoughtlessness can lead us into behaviour from which, were we being a little more reflective, we’d withdraw in embarrassment or shame. So how can we identify the unethical actions of ourselves or others?

A simple guide is provided by the moral objectives outlined at the start of this series:

  • To nurture others.
  • To nurture our species as a whole. 
  • To nurture all life.

With these as our measure, we can drill down to specifics that can plainly be seen to contravene these objectives, such as:

  • Bullying
  • Harassment (sexual or emotional) 
  • Dishonesty and theft
  • Exploitative behaviour, either of colleagues or clients
  • Discrimination
  • Casual stereotyping or ‘othering’
  • Behaviour detrimental to the business in which we work
  • Behaviour detrimental to the wider community or the environment.

In other words, the unethical behaviour we are identifying is any activity that conflicts with our core moral objectives. Though complex scenarios may demand close analysis and thought, our central moral objectives at least set us on the road toward a clear identification of what is or is not moral. 

Having identified unethical behaviour our question then becomes, ‘what should we do about it, and when should we act?’

Response times

Let’s consider the question of ‘when to act’.

I suggest a simple rule:

The time to tackle identified unethical behaviour is always now.

This is because human activity normalises itself through repetition. It’s a rapid process. If an action is performed just once and ‘gotten away with’, normalisation has already begun. Each repetition from that point forwards reinforces the appearance of acceptability. So, before this happens, the behaviour must be urgently challenged.

Isn’t  ‘zero tolerance’ perhaps a little extreme? Shouldn’t we grant some leeway? What if there are more important things taking place? Wouldn’t it be better to let the trivial stuff slide?

Despite these arguments, the logic of morality tells us that all ethical issues deserve attention – and that one moral concern can never totally eclipse another. (For a full discussion see my book Intelligent Ethics.) 

‘No one can tackle everything!’ an objector might protest. ‘What of resources, capacity, time?’

In a previous article I introduced an interesting individual: Alien David, the Attenborough from space. 

Were we able to tune into Alien David we would hear him saying – with a degree of restrained excitement in his voice – that we humans are astounding creatures. He would tell us that we are geniuses of problem solving and solution-finding. Just look at our history! Just look at our achievements! 

So what if there’s more than one ethical challenge occurring in our business? 

So what if some of these issues are major while others are trivial by comparison? 

That’s not a problem. 

We humans are immensely capable. We can deal with more than one issue at a time.

Making it personal

When challenging unethical behaviour it’s often best to begin with an informal approach. Colleagues regularly fail to register how others see them. In fact, it can be quite a shock for someone to learn that others perceive their behaviour as, e.g., bullying (they believed it ‘jocular’ or ‘playful’), harassing (they were convinced it was humorous or ‘permissible flirtation’) or discriminatory (habit/sheer thoughtlessness). 

This is not to excuse the behaviour, it’s just to suggest that it may be easier to bring it to an end than you might at first think.

Tackling a colleague informally takes courage, however, so why gamble on this approach?

There are three good reasons:

  1. It’s the least threatening. You can begin with phrases such as, “I don’t know if you realised this, but…” or, “have you noticed what’s happening when…”.
  2. A personal approach will reduce the likelihood of entrenchment. Introduce an audience and the colleague will immediately feel obliged to double down, but if you’re their sole audience, they will find it easier to make concessions and change.
  3.  The personal approach minimises the risk of defensive overreaction. 

Of course, if your informal approach fails (or is unfeasible), then you will need to transition to a more formal footing.

Taking up arms

This will be when you familiarise yourself with and invoke the disciplinary or grievance procedures available in your workplace. It is important not to sidestep these unless you are absolutely certain the formal route is inappropriate or will be blocked. 

If you are tempted by alternatives, such as escalation to senior management or whistleblowing, definitely obtain a second opinion before doing so. A degree of objectivity is crucial at such times.

If the formal process is successful and brings about a fair outcome, then this is all well and good.

Some simple tips for those opting for formal workplace escalations are: 

  • Always do your research, so you understand the rules you are trying to apply.
  • Always have evidence or proof of the unethical behaviour. Feelings and suspicions are rarely enough.
  • Keep an audit trail.
  • Don’t let impatience sway you toward breaching protocol. See the process through.

If the formal process is successful and brings about a fair outcome, then this is all well and good.

If not, then the time may have come for escalation or whistleblowing – but, again, seek a second opinion before taking this critical step.

The ethical algorithm

Our algorithm for tackling unethical workplace behaviour is beginning to look like this:

Action or activity occurs

  1. Ethical or unethical? (validate against our core moral objectives…)
  • If ethical, or if there are no significant ethical implications: ignore.
  • If unethical, ask, ‘can I tackle this informally, in person?’
  • If yes, give it a go. Perhaps try twice. If successful, great. Issue resolved.
  • If no, or informal approach unsuccessful, retry informal approach using a friendly manager or colleague (if feasible). If successful, again, great. Issue resolved.
  • If all informal approaches fail:

(a)    Familiarise yourself with formal options.
(b)    Decide how much personal impact you are willing to absorb.
(c)    Decide if you wish to go further.

  • If so, initiate the grievance or disciplinary procedures available in your workplace. If successful, great. Issue resolved.
  • If these fail, reassess the moral basis of your position. Get a second opinion.
  •  If secure in your moral position and you are willing to go further, invoke senior escalation or whistleblowing. Take measures for personal protection as/if required.

If you choose to tackle unethical behaviour, keep this algorithm in mind. Be alert to where you are within it and, even though this may be difficult, try to be patient.

My final recommendation?

If possible, see the process through to the end.

No matter how subtle the issue or how low key your approach, unethical behaviour in the workplace must always be challenged. Unchallenged, it quickly becomes the norm.

Coming soon

In my next article I discuss the environmental question and how this now affects all workplaces across the world, ‘how green is my business – and how can I make it greener?’

In the meantime, please use the comments section below to join our conversation about ethics. I will respond as promptly as I can.

5 Responses

  1. I’m pleased and excited to
    I’m pleased and excited to announce the launch of my new book ‘Short Conversations – During the Storm’ this week!!!
    I hope you can find the time to dip into it.
    It’s about the threats to social and environmental well-being which we all face, and the cognitive tools we need to make sense of our world.
    You can find it here:
    Please give the book a read and a plug with colleagues and friends! In fact, if you’re stuck for Christmas presents…..!

  2. If you enjoyed this article,
    If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at my latest book:

    Short Conversations: During the Plague

    “Short Conversations” evolved on Twitter. For that reason, it’s a book about everything – because that’s what you find on Twitter: just about everything.

    It asks questions like:

    – Can we fix a broken media?

    – Can we become cleverer?

    – Is a better world possible?

    – Is eating meat a crime?

    – Is a virus killing our world?

    – Are there reasons for hope?

    All these questions are there on social media, with a thousand different answers to each one.

    And that’s a problem…

    With so many answers on offer, how can we tell which are the right ones?

    Well, I’m going to surprise you… Good answers can be found.

    If you go back to basics and build up from there; if you use both common sense and logic; if you root your thinking in the evidence; and if you assert the moral context – then you’ll find answers with heft; answers you can count on; answers you can use.

    So, “Short Conversations” is about these questions and many others. It asks questions, it identifies problems, and it offers answers.

    Answers on which you can count.

Author Profile Picture
Luke Andreski

Writer - Business Ethics

Read more from Luke Andreski

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