The 5 Most Common Unethical Workplace Behaviors

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By Manny Rodriguez, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Have you ever seen unethical behavior?  If you did, did you say something or wonder whether it was truly unethical?  Nearly three-quarter of employees who responded to one survey reported that they had observed unethical or illegal behavior by coworkers in the past year (Gino et al., 2014).  “People often start their misconduct with small transgressions and then slide down a slippery slope” (Gino et al., 2014).

From a behavioral perspective, one can hypothesize these small transgressions resulted in enough reinforcement to continue to behave towards larger transgressions, again possibly yielding further reinforcement, ultimately resulting in major unethical behavior (i.e., fraud, larceny).  Unfortunately, the assumption that unethical workplace behavior is the product of a few “bad apples” has blinded many organizations to the fact that everyone is susceptible to their environment and can be unethical, even when we care a great deal about honesty, integrity, and following rules.  Yet approaches to warding off those few “bad apples” need not to be drastic.

Arthur Schwartz (2015) wrote about a recent survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center (ERC), sharing “within the past year, almost half of [those surveyed] personally witnessed some form of ethical misconduct.”   The “good news from the ERC study is that most American workers and employers do the right thing.”  The survey revealed most follow ethical standards of behavior, and are willing to report wrongdoing when they see it “(unless it’s the company’s Internet use policy, more on that in a minute).”

For those of us who have had the opportunity to focus on ethics and ethical behavior in the workplace, there is an abundance of literature and research to help guide our work to support organizations and specific individuals responsible for ethics in the workplace.   For example, The Ethics and Compliance Initiative, the research arm is the ERC, published the results of a research report from the national business ethics survey stating “Employee Views of Leaders’ Personal Conduct Drives Perceptions of their Ethical Leadership. Workers’ Judge Leaders Primarily by Three Factors – the overall character of their leaders as experienced through personal interactions; how senior managers handle crises; and the policies and procedures adopted by senior leaders to manage the company (ECI, 2015).

According to Lattal and Clark (2011), there are behaviors that each of us can do to contribute to a “stronger ethical workplace”, meaning people demonstrating behaviors deemed ethical.  But where do you begin? 

Well, first, let’s review the 5 most common unethical behaviors according to the Ethics Resource Center.

5 Most Common Unethical Behaviors in the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) Survey

1. Misuse of company time. Whether it is covering for someone who shows up late or altering a time sheet, misusing company time tops the list. This category includes knowing a co-worker is conducting personal business on company time.  By “personal business” the survey recognizes the difference between making cold calls to advance your freelance business and calling a spouse to find out how your sick child is doing.  Misuse of company time is unethical.

2. Abusive Behavior. Too many workplaces are filled with leaders who use their position and power to mistreat others.  Unfortunately, unless the situation involves race, gender or ethnic origin, there is often little to no legal protection against abusive behavior in the workplace.   Abusive behavior is unethical.

3. Employee Theft. Whether its check tampering, not recording sales in order to skim, or manipulating expense reimbursements, employee theft is a crime and unethical.

4. Lying to Employees. The fastest way to lose the trust of your employees is to lie to them. If you ask employees whether their manager or supervisor has lied to them within the past year, you may be surprised at the results. Lying is unethical.

5. Violating Company Internet Policies. Cyberslackers. Cyberloafers. These are terms used to identify people who surf the internet when they should be working.   This is a huge, multi-billion-dollar problem for companies. Who would have thought that checking your Facebook or Twitter account is becoming an ethical issue? It is.  Violating company Internet policies is unethical.

How Behavior Science Can Help?

For those of us who are interested in ethical behavior in the workplace, we can help.  There are two behaviors we can engage in to support leaders of organizations to drive ethical behavior: 1) give a little “nudge” to ethical behavior and 2) analyze organizational culture to evaluate its ethical practices using Behavioral Systems Analysis.

Give a nudge.

Have you ever had to sign a document with the phrase “I promise that the information I am providing is true” prior to signing?  Well, some studies, although not empirical, suggest this statement nudges honesty.  Individuals who sign when the statement is present before signing have been shown to be significantly more honest compared to those who reported first and signed at the bottom of the page.

Reinforce Specific Leadership Behaviors to Encourage Ethical Behavior

Transparency, communication, and accountability around ethical behaviors are a few of the leadership behaviors commonly suggested to leaders.  The behavior scientist can provide focus education and coaching on these behaviors to enable leaders to demonstrate critical behaviors which demonstrate a focus on ethics and being ethical.

In addition, a common approach in Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) to analyzing the intricate components of an organization is Behavioral Systems Analysis (BSA).  BSA is an approach to organizational design and management based on the premise that organizations are complex systems.  In short, changes in one aspect of an organization affect performance in another part of the organization.  BSA can arm organizations to further integrate ethical practices into a company.  For example,  Lattal & Clark (2007) provide a thoughtful list on ethical practices that organizations can employ to encourage ethics:

  1. Set ethical values statements.
  2. Discuss ethics during performance reviews.
  3. Reinforce ethical behavior.
  4.  Retain ethical employees.
  5. Make ethics a hiring priority.

This is further reinforced by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (2015) whose recommendations based on the Research Report from the National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES®) consist of 4 recommendations:

  1. Pay attention to personal character when hiring and make 24-7 integrity a job expectation. 
  2. Educate managers about the way employees evaluate leaders, including the impact of “private” behavior in the age of social media.
  3. Encourage leaders to share credit for success and seek honest feedback from employees.
  4. Annually review business objectives and policies to ensure they promote ethical performance.

When moral standards are unclear or unenforced, it’s easy for employees to act in questionable behaviors that are readily rationalized.  Environments that nudge employees in the right direction, leaders who demonstrate ethical behavior and encourage ethical behaviors, and organizational systems built to support ethical practices is the perfect ethical trio.

For Your Reading Pleasure:

Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI) (2015). A Research Report from the National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES®). Retrieved October 1, 2015 http://ecoaconnects.theecoa.org/newsite/research/eci-research/nbes/nbes-reports/ethical-leadership

Gino, F., Lisa D. Ordóñez, L.D., and Welsh, D. (2014) How Unethical Behavior Becomes Habit. Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved on October 1, 2015 https://hbr.org/2014/09/how-unethical-behavior-becomes-habit/

Krapfl, J.E. and Kruja, B. (2015). Leadership and Culture. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, vol. 35, pages 28-43.

Lattal, A. D., & Clark, R. W. (2007). A good days work. New York: NY: McGraw-Hill.

Schwartz, A. (2015). The 5 most common unethical behaviors in the workplace. Philadelphia Business Journal. Retrieved October 1, 2015 http://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/blog/guest-comment/2015/01/most-common-unethical-behaviors-in-the.html

Verschoor, C.C. (2013). Ethical Behavior Differs Among Generations.

Manny Rodriguez, M.S. manny@abatechnologies.com

Manny Rodriguez, M.S. has over ten years experience, working with organizations across the globe within the Fortune 1000. He is an accomplished practitioner in the field of Behavior Analysis, highly regarded by his customers and colleagues alike. Manny is especially skilled at facilitating business teams to execute strategic plans and preparing leaders to engage employees to reach their maximum potential. Manny holds the position of Director of Continuing Education and Product Development for ABA Technologies, a pioneer in online professional development of behavior analysts, and is also the President of the Organizational Behavior Management Network.

Manny Rodriguez and ABA Technologies, Inc provides products and services for Behavior Analysts and the general public. Online Professional Development in ABA, Coaching/Mentoring Behavior Analysts, Speaking engagements such as Workshops/Seminars/Webinars, and Expert Consulting in ABA, OBM, Instructional Design and Teaching Behavior Analysis. For more information, contact info@abatechnologies.com.

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4 Comments on "The 5 Most Common Unethical Workplace Behaviors"

  1. With regard to not abiding by the terms of company policies (e.g. personal calls or checking a text message etc.), frequently the purpose of the company policy is to legally protect the organisation. The rule stated is not always the rule that employees contact by way of their managers actions.

    A cashier in a shop may check their Facebook messages or phone a loved one while the shop is empty and no contracted tasks remain. Her manager may know that she is doing this and not have a problem with this as it has no effect on productivity, however the same manager might use violation of internet policy to fire an employee who was carrying out the same actions in a way that undermined the shop’s productivity or reputation.

    Is it the employee who performs as expected and in accordance with the unwritten rules of a company who is acting unethically or is it the company that writes a policy in an overly restrictive manner for the purposes of making the dismissal of employees easier?

  2. In addition to data scientist online training, I regularly come to this blog for its information about data science along with other cloud based platforms. Thanks for giving us great insights…

  3. I had an incident happen to me at my ex workplace. I had a issue with someone (not sure who) in my department who accessed my PC and my work email, who sent a girl an email from my email account (while I had walked away from my pc) stating that I had a crush on her. She was a girl with a mental disability and I am open gay man. They deleted the email from my sent items and as well as my deleted items. I didn’t know that the email was sent. Word got around the department and someone told me about the email. I immediately sent the girl an email stating that the first email did not come from me. Then a few years later, we had issues with our barcode printer which was attached to my PC. We had the IT department coming down to look at it on and off. I didn’t have an issue with being notified that they were coming. One day while I was in a Team meeting the IT department accessed my PC while I didn’t know and my PC didn’t lock up after I had walked away from it. When i returned to my PC after the meeting, I noticed a folder left open by the IT department. I then made a complaint that my PC had been accessed without my permission. With me making that complaint, I was then put onto the Fraud Prevention Officer, where I was advised that my hard drive was being removed and inspected. They found nothing on my hard drive. But my reason for being so protective of my PC at work was because of the practical joke that was wrong and unethical.

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