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Ethical Principles in the Workplace

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The business world places a premium on turning a profit, which can sometimes make ethical behavior hard. Lying to customers is unethical, for instance, but a salesperson may feel pressured to lie if that's the only way to close a sale. It's often easy to compromise on workplace ethics, but that is a mistake.

Business Ethical Principles

Different companies and consultants may have different ideas of what makes a good ethical code, but there are some commonly agreed-on workplace ethical principles:

  • Honesty; don't mislead customers, superiors or subordinates by lying, including partial truths and omissions.
  • Integrity; do what's right, even when doing the wrong thing benefits you.
  • Work hard
  • Keep your word
  • Respect others
  • Obey the law
  • Appreciate the people who help and support you
  • Take responsibility for your actions, including your mistakes
  • Don't discriminate; treat people fairly

The Unethical Workplace

Some types of unethical behavior, such as lying, stealing or cheating, are wrong on or off the job. Other types of bad behavior are unique to the workplace:

  • Ignoring procedures or policies
  • Sharing confidential information
  • Basing business decisions on personal gain
  • Withholding important information
  • Abusing your computer access (i.e. playing online games when you're supposed to be working)
  • Taking bribes or kickbacks
  • Ignoring problems

Why Ethics Matter

The simplest reason ethics matter is because they mark the difference between right and wrong. However, encouraging everyone to follow workplace ethical principles is also good for business:

  • If business leaders follow ethical principles, that sets an example for employees.
  • Ethical behavior promotes trust in the workplace.
  • Ethics in hiring and firing, such as nondiscrimination, creates a more diverse workplace.
  • An ethical business has a better public image.
  • By acting ethically, a business improves the community around it.
  • If the business team follows ethical principles, its members are less likely to violate legal principles.

Establishing Workplace Ethical Guidelines

Management can't just say everyone should act ethically and assume that's all it takes. The company's ethical principles should be written down as codes of conduct for managers, executives and other employees. It's much easier for employees to know how to act ethically if they know what's expected of them. It's also easier for the company to judge whether prospective employees will fit with the company culture.

Successful ethical companies also provide training regarding how to solve ethical dilemmas. They give positive feedback when staff act ethically, and provide a feedback system for reporting unethical behavior. All these things can reinforce an ethical workplace culture.


Over the course of his career, Fraser Sherman has reported on local governments, written about how to start a business and profiled professionals in a variety of career fields.. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is

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