A Publication of WTVP

In February, we talk about love and romance in life—not about falling out of love or going through divorce. The same dynamic is true in the workplace. We want to focus on happiness and success for a worker—not the discipline of an employee or termination of employment.

Over my years in consulting, I haven’t come across a single manager or supervisor who has said, “I love to fire an employee!” The reverse always is true, but this situation sometimes becomes necessary. There are ethical issues involved here. In any case, the manager almost always finds this situation difficult to navigate. Even positive and objective management can be a challenge.

On the one hand, the employee may have done something that clearly is ethically, morally, or legally wrong in the workplace. The person may have violated a stated policy or law. The person could have acted offensively or abusively towards others. Or the employee could have misused property or funds, even for the best of intentions. Finally, the person could have neglected to take action or report wrongdoing of others or failed to follow through on assignments or even show up for work.

On the other hand, employers might have done something unethical or illegal. Perhaps the employee is older and nearing retirement and the employer doesn’t want to pay a full pension. Perhaps the person earns a high salary and the employer is trying to cut costs. Or, in a really bad scenario, the manager or supervisor simply may dislike the person in question or communicate expectations in a very poor way. There may be no major ethical, moral, or legal problem. The manager or supervisor just wants to get rid of the employee in any possible way, and wrongdoings or shortcomings are trumped up.

What can leaders and organizations do, then, to strengthen the ethical policies and practices so employees are fairly treated and the workplace culture can reinforce ethical expectations? Four elements of ethics can reduce risk and increase peace.

• Create and distribute an ethics document or handbook. Few organizations have developed an ethics document. A good document will do three things. First, it’ll be clear and straightforward about ethical practices when it comes to dealing with people, whether in the workplace or in the larger community. The document needs to articulate clearly what the organization holds most important and how they hold people clearly accountable in their practices.

• Identify core ethical values. This element is seen clearly in the document. The values must be stated in one or two words that identify a key standard for the organization’s best practices in business and in behaviors. Each of these values can have a handful of principles that put the values into general practice. For example, a core value such as “trustworthiness” could be articulated in an expectation of truthfulness, candor, and challenges to conflicts of interest.

• Present program components involving ethics. In the document, there are program components that provide clear and specific examples of behavior and activity in the ethical principles. For example, when showing how trustworthiness is put to work through candor and truthfulness, one component could be that the manager or supervisor acts on all available information obtained from employees, customers or members, and leaders such as board members. These statements always are put forward in positive ways.

• Train employees in ethical standards. All employees—and volunteers in the public and nonprofit sectors—are trained in the use of the ethics document or handbook. This publication has to be different from a workplace policy handbook. These handbooks often spell out expectations and behaviors in a negative way—for example, employees shall not smoke except in designated areas. Ethics documents or handbooks spell out in a positive way how choices and behaviors support the mission and purpose of the organization. Many workplaces don’t have well-developed workplace handbooks. Even fewer have ethics documents to help employees make positive choices.

Having an ethics document can help workplaces become the best they can be in building up workers, attracting and keeping customers, and making a positive contribution in a community. And, perhaps most importantly, it can be an all-important tool in dealing positively with discipline and termination so the workplace and the employee can move forward in the best possible way. IBI