Every workplace action has an ethical dimension because no single action can exist in a vacuum. Everything we do affects others around us. Acting ethically means anticipating our impacts on others and avoiding or seeking to minimise potential negative consequences. To forewarn yourself about workplace ethical challenges, pay attention to:

Context: The context you are in will significantly impact how you act more than your character does. Be on the alert as social pressures encourage us to turn a blind eye to others’ misdoings. We may even take our lead from the actions of others.

Beware of Goals: You may find yourself justifying your behaviour choices as necessary to achieve your goals. If this is the case, you are on a slippery slope to more unethical behaviour. Stop and review your values and use these to guide your actions.

Beware of Loyalty: Many people consider unethical behaviour as only those actions that result in personal gain. This belief causes us to fail to see that our choices are corrupt. Lying to protect others or fudging figures to assist with team targets is unethical, even if there is no personal gain.

Inner thoughts: People behave unethically up to the point that they can make excuses for their behaviour. These excuses are the stories we tell ourselves. The story may be that everyone’s doing it, no one gets hurt, or someone depends on me doing this. Or we may think that it is time pressure that makes us act this way. Tune into your internal dialogue and stay alert to ethical slippage.

Well-being: We are more prone to act in ways we shouldn’t when tired or stressed or being unfairly treated. In these situations, it pays to check with a trusted colleague whether your action is an ethical one.

Framing: How we ‘frame’ a decision can cause us to ignore its ethical dimension. Framing is the context we give a situation or action. If you hear yourself saying ‘it’s only a business decision’, chances are that you are ignoring its ethical aspects. Avoid making decisions based on a narrow range of information.

Friends and family: Be on alert when friends or family ask you to do something. Your loyalty to them may override your duty to your organisation and leave you slipping into questionable actions.

Competing values: Ethical challenges arise from competing values. A typical example is admitting the organisation has made a mistake versus incurring negative media attention. We often pursue short term wins at the expense of harmful consequences. For instance, micromanaging employees at the cost of their social needs. Anticipate, confront and discuss tensions that may arise to enable you to manage them better.

Learning to think ethically is a skill that needs to be continually honed and updated. To improve this skill, companies should use emerging social research on the key motivators and shapers of workplace conduct as shared by EthicalSystems.org.

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