Employee Wrongdoing: Drawing the Line

Should companies ever tolerate unethical behaviour in the workplace? Never? What about really small stuff? What about really important employees? How strictly should they monitor employees? Won’t intense scrutiny hurt morale?

Here’s an excellent piece on just those questions, by Vadim Liberman, in the Conference Board Review: Workers Behaving Badly

This article is written for workplace miscreants who steal from, lie to, bribe on behalf of, and deceive their bosses and businesses. Not you, of course. Not only is the angel on your left shoulder restraining Satan on the other side—page thirty-four in the company manual forbids such hijinks.

But ask yourself: Have you ever slipped a pencil from your desk into your purse? Ever surfed the Internet in the office to check the score of this afternoon’s game? Dropped a holiday package in the mailroom outbox? If you answered no to all the above, congratulations! You’d be the ideal ethically pure executive—that is, if your no weren’t an outright lie.

Oh, come on, you might be thinking—it’s just a pencil….

The article cites a number of relevant considerations (including a few in quotations from me). The one I think particularly worth highlighting is the distinction between ethical infractions that only affect the company (e.g., petty pilfering from the supply cabinet) and those that affect outsiders (e.g., exaggerating expenses that are then billed to clients). It seems to me that companies (and hence managers) are within their rights to be more or less as strict or as lax as they want, when only the interests of the company are affected. That’s not to say they couldn’t make more- or less-wise ethical decisions in that regard; it’s just to say that, well, it’s their business, and that gives them the right to some latitude. But when employees do unethical (or illegal) things that affect those outside the company, if the company allows the behaviour (explicitly or implicitly condoning it) then it essentially becomes an action of or by the company. And in that case, the company itself is acting unethically.

(By the way, this is one of the finest piece of ethics journalism I’ve seen in a long time, and not just because it quotes me. It’s thoughtful and well-researched. The whole thing is well worth reading.)

2 comments so far

  1. Max on

    Unethical behaviour in the workplace or elsewhere is unacceptable, but I have always turned a blind eye to small items e.g. an employee stealing a few pencils, erasers, sheets of computer paper, etc., because I believe that
    (a) most employers do not pay an employee what he or she is worth and these small thefts do not come anywhere near making up the shortfall;
    (b) these small thefts may motivate the employee to work more effectively, such that the benefit to the company may exceed the cost e.g. a small amount of time spent checking one’s personal e-mail account or even looking at a beautiful/handsome employee, instead of focusing on work all the time;
    (c) an employee needs to be happy in order to be productive;
    (d) employers often do not lead by “ethical” example, so what gives them the right to expect pure ethical behavior from other stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, etc.? I say “don’t talk the talk, unless you can walk the walk and see (a) above;
    (e) there are very few human beings who are 100% pure and honest and we need to run a business by employing human beings, because robots cannot do everything for us, etc., etc. so let us adapt to human nature and minimize our discomfort, knowing that very few of us are 100% pure, ethical and unselfish.

    I have a policy of distributing free abridged versions of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women, bullying and sexual harassment, trade unions, etc., to anyone who sends a request to crespin79@hotmail.com.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  2. hartwomen on

    Sry for the delay in reply relative to the article’s posting date.
    I would suggest that the distinction between internal and external impact seems somewhat temporary or artificial. While, at the moment of acting, one might be able to argue a singluar first generation impact only on the firm itself (internal), since when does “slippage” (employee theft) or other forms of wrongful employee behavior not have an ultimate impact on multiple external stakeholders? The more pencils that are taken, the higher the losses for the firm, the greater the impact on stockholders, consumer prices, and so on.
    Similarly, to the commentator above, justifying wrongful behavior such as theft because of unfair wages is a slippery slope that is too dangerous for my interests. In fact, I would not even want to try the bunny hill on that one. I think that argument even starts off wrong.


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