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Employee Behavior for the Morally Challenged


With Election Day looming large, the last few weeks have been filled with fiery talk about ethics.

Long after the politicians have jubilantly attained office or retired to lick their wounds, employees will be dealing with everyday matters of ethics in the workplace. Some companies, including Texas Instruments Inc. and Levi Strauss & Co., have made ethics education a key piece of their human resources programs.

Unethical decisions by employees come in a variety of packages, notes Personnel Journal, a trade magazine geared to human resources professionals.

There's the employee who conducts personal business on company time. The line worker who fails to report a product flaw so that a deadline can be met. The manager who accepts a gift from a customer and then puts a rush on the customer's order.

None of these alone is enough to threaten the organization's existence. But taken in combination, they can be evidence of a moral vacuum--an attitude that unethical behavior is all right as long as it helps the bottom line.

In a survey by the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, nearly a third of the respondents said they felt they had been pressured to violate company policies to achieve business objectives.

Some examples of issues that can come up:


Dear Ms. Work Wise: There are some ethical problems at my company that are getting harder and harder to ignore. My bosses regularly instruct me to lie to clients about when projects will be ready and when fees will be paid. My job pays well and I want to keep it. My conscience, however, is working overtime. May I reasonably request not to be required to tell business fibs?

--Forlorn in Florence

Dear Forlorn: If you're feeling brave, try confronting the supervisor directly, since end runs can be messy. In a diplomatic way, note that you must be able to respect and admire the people above you. Reiterate your loyalty to the company. Point out that you understand why he wants you to do these things but tell him: "I don't think I can do it well. I'm uncomfortable, and it would interfere with my effectiveness." Remind him, also, that lying to clients could backfire. Once burned, they will take their business elsewhere.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: Several of my colleagues spend hours every week downloading pornography from the Internet. I'm disturbed by this, not just because, as a female, I find pornography sexist and demeaning, but also because these guys are wasting valuable company time. What can I do about it?

--Teed-Off in Temecula

Dear Teed-Off: Surfing the Internet for pornographic materials is a growing problem in corporate America, says Glenn Coleman, manager of ethics communication and education at Texas Instruments in Dallas. At TI, employees in recent months have contacted Coleman's office to complain about colleagues who abuse their online capabilities.

Perusing porno on the Net is viewed as a direct violation of TI's company values. Moreover, it can raise questions of illegality. If someone is idly surfing the Internet, to which contract is that person charging his or her time? If it's a government contract, that person could be breaking the law.

Coleman suggests using "the grandmother test." Would you still be doing what you're doing if your grandmother were looking over your shoulder? A more sober "ethics quick test" consists of these questions: Is the action legal in the United States and other countries where the company operates? Does it comply with company values, or give you a knot in your gut? Will you feel bad if you do it? Does it pass the openness test--i.e., how would it look in the morning newspaper?

TI encourages whistle-blowers to confront the offending colleague--unless they fear retaliation. It sometimes works to just say, "Come on, knock it off."


Dear Ms. Work Wise: I work at an entertainment company where creative ideas are the currency. Lately, a female colleague has been trying to worm her way onto one of my best projects. I fear that when I head out of town on business, she will seize that opportunity to present my ideas as her own. What should I do?

--Anxious in Arcadia

Dear Anxious: You might try what worked for Karen Salmansohn, a former New York advertising writer-turned-author of a guide for women in the workplace called "How to Succeed in Business Without a Penis." Before she headed out of town on business, she photocopied her ads and gave them to a colleague, asking that they be kept in a locked file cabinet. Sure enough, after another female colleague claimed credit for the work, Salmansohn was able to produce proof that the work was her own. The credit-grabbing colleague, by the way, escaped with a reprimand--apparently because she was having an affair with one of the account supervisors, but that's a whole other can of worms.


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