An Employee’s Lapse in Ethical Behavior—No Matter How Small it May Seem—Can Have a Compounding, Negative Effect on the Entire Workplace.

Think you are a person of integrity and that you bring the highest standards of ethics to your workplace each day?

Despite hundreds of pages of policies, codes of ethics, codes of conduct, organizational values, and carefully defined work environments and company cultures, lapses in workplace ethics occur every day.

Lapses in workplace ethics result from inappropriate officer behavior such as insider stock trading, expense account fraud, sexual harassment, sexism and involvement in conflicts of interest.

Lapses in workplace ethics do not need to rise to such a level that would impact the workplace environment you provide for employees. Lapses in workplace ethics also can occur because of simple issues such involving toilet paper, copy machines and lunch signup lists.

In a nationally important workplace ethics case, Hewlett-Packard’s former CEO, Mark Hurd, became entangled in workplace ethics issues. Based on only the public statement from the company, it appears Hurd left because he violated the company’s expected standards of conduct.

The appointed interim CEO, until the company found a permanent replacement for Hurd, asked employees “to remain ‘focused’ and said, ‘Mark had failed to disclose a close personal relationship he had with the contractor who constituted a conflict of interest, failed to maintain accurate expense reports and misused company assets.’”

Unfortunately, Hurd is neither the first nor only high-profile executive in recent years whose downfall was caused by inappropriate personal conduct. Such lapses in ethics occur in workplaces every day.

Violations may be spoken or unspoken, published or unpublished, with or without a CEO title. Violations of the rules don’t necessarily have to rise to the level of conflict of interest or questionable expense accounting.

Lapses in Ethics Drives Policy Development

Sometimes, untrustworthy actions by certain employees lead to the implementation of strict company policies. Consider, for example, the debate over the effectiveness of a paid time-off (PTO) policy versus one that divides available days between personal, sick days and vacation time off.

The only reason strict PTO policies sometimes exist is because a few employees may have taken advantage of the employer’s attempts to offer sympathetic time-off for legitimate life reasons. To address the situation, the employer then feels compelled to limit management discretion and decision-making about individual employee situations and instead institutes policies to govern all.

You can build a similar case for most organizational policies. The failure of some employees to practice principled workplace ethical decision-making results in restrictive policies that cover all employees.

Codes of conduct or business ethics exist to guide the expected behavior of honorable employees. But, these often also have been initiated in response to dishonorable behavior.

In today’s workplace, potential charges of unfair treatment, discrimination, favoritism and hostile work environment replace much management discretion. The many suffer for the sins of the few and sometimes, even the best employees get caught in the equal treatment trap. At best, time-off policies, to use just one example, require organization time and energy – hundreds of hours of tracking and accounting.


Everyday Ethics

Not all employees will understand the challenges experienced by Hurd and other senior company executives in their practice of workplace ethics. Still, all employees have the opportunity daily to prove the core and fiber of who they are as people. Their values, integrity, beliefs and character speak loudly through the behavior in which they engage at work.

Lapses in the practice of workplace ethics come in all sizes—large and small, far-reaching and close to home. Some ethical lapses affect individual employees. Other ethical lapses affect whole work groups, and in particularly shocking instances, such as, Hurd’s, whole companies, leaving the stakeholders to suffer as a result.

Failure to practice everyday workplace ethics isn’t always obvious. Only you will ever know about the decision you made, but each lapse in ethics affects your essence as an individual, as an employee and as a human being. Even the smallest lapse in workplace ethics diminishes the quality of the workplace for all employees.

Examples of Lapses in Workplace Ethics

Each failure to practice value-based workplace ethics affects your self-image and what you stand for, far more than it affects your co-workers. Still, the effect of your behavior on your fellow employees is real, tangible and unpredictable.

The following are examples of employees failing to practice fundamental workplace ethics. The solution? Change the behavior, of course. You may never have thought of these actions as problems with ethical behavior, but they are. And all of them affect your co-workers in negative ways.

  • You are using the company restroom and use up the last roll of toilet paper, or the last piece of paper towel. Without thought for the needs of the next employee, you go back to work rather than addressing the issue.
  • You call in sick to your supervisor because it’s a beautiful day and you decide to go to the beach, or shopping, or…
  • You engage in an affair with a co-worker while married because no one at work will ever know. You think you’re in love. You think you can get away with it. Your personal matters are your own business. The affair will not impact other employees or the workplace.
  • You place your dirty cup in the lunchroom sink. With a guilty glance around the room, you find no one watching and quickly leave the room.
  • Your company sponsors events, activities or lunches. You sign up to attend and fail to show. Equally as disrespectful, you fail to sign up and show up anyway. You make the behavior worse when you claim you took the appropriate action, so someone else must have screwed up.
  • You tell potential customers you are the vice president in charge of something. When they seek out the company VP at a trade show, you tell your boss the customers must have made a mistake.
  • You work in a restaurant, where wait staff’s tips are shared equally and you withhold a portion of your tips from the common pot before the tips are divided.
  • You take office supplies from work to use at home because, you justify, you often engage in company work at home, or you worked extra hours this week and so on.
  • You spend several hours a day using your work computer to shop, check out sports scores, pay bills, do online banking and surf the web for the latest celebrity news headlines and political opinions.
  • You use up the last paper in the communal printer, and you fail to restock the empty tray, leaving the task to the next employee who uses the printer.
  • You hoard supplies in your desk drawer so you won’t run out while other employees go without supplies they need to do their work.
  • You overhear a piece of juicy gossip about another employee and then repeat it to other co-workers. Whether the gossip is true or false is not the issue.
  • You tell a customer or potential customer your product will perform an action when you don’t know if it will and you didn’t check with an employee who does.
  • You allow a part that you know does not meet quality standards to leave your work station and hope your supervisor or the quality inspector won’t notice.
  • You claim credit for the work of another employee, or you fail to give public credit to a co-worker’s contribution, when you share results, make a presentation, turn in a report or in any other way appear to be the sole owner of a work product or results.

There are a few signs that appear if your ethics are substandard. You make excuses, give yourself reasons, and that little voice of your conscience that chatters away in your head tries to convince your ethical self that your lapse in workplace ethics is OK.

The “short” list provides examples of ways in which employees fail to practice workplace ethics. It is not comprehensive, as there are hundreds of additional examples encountered by employees in workplaces daily.

A person who has integrity lives his or her values in relationships with co-workers, customers and stakeholders. Honesty and trust are central. Acting with honor and truthfulness are also basic tenets in a person with integrity.

People who demonstrate integrity draw others to them because they are trustworthy and dependable. They are principled and can be counted on to behave in honorable ways even when no one is watching.