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Ethics in the Workplace

May 17, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Business Ethics

Ethics in the Workplace

According to most dictionaries, ethics (the word deriving from the Greek word ethos meaning custom, practice and usage) refers to broadly accepted principles, judgments or ideas about what is right and wrong, good and evil, correct and incorrect behavior/ conduct, moral and immoral etc. In fact, the last of these terms, “morality” is often used by people interchangeably with ethicality. However, morality is more often related to personal morals or ethics (hence we decide about what is right and wrong as individuals) whereas ethics is typically related to a collective system of beliefs about what is right and wrong (and is therefore determined by a wider group of people and may even become a group judgment about how we should even live our entire lives).

Ethical theories

The field of ethics (under the broader umbrella of moral philosophy), can be said to involve systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

Meta-ethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves.

Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior, when it comes to others.

Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific and often controversial life issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war. Applied ethics can also examine a range of organizational issues too. By using the conceptual tools of meta-ethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these controversial issues.

The lines of distinction between meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are not always clear. For example, the issue of multi-national companies out-sourcing work to third-world countries, raises the vexed problem of in-bound investment (and all the economic good that can flow from this) and potential labor abuse (especially where sub-contractors are allowed to set their own (often much lower) ethical standards.

Ethics in the workplace: “Corporate” or business ethics

Although “corporate” ethics would never seek to suggest how individuals should live their whole lives (both inside and outside the workplace), as a whole morale philosophy, it has similar ambitions within the “corporate” employing body of each individual. In other words, corporate ethics are standards of behavior or judgments about what is considered to be organizational right and wrong (allowing individuals to act within certain boundaries when they face different circumstances or have to make a variety of different business-related decisions).

Organizations can use a number of methods and systems to deploy particular ethical standards that may be seen to be important. However, before they do so, there must be absolute clarity and agreement about what these standards should be. In most cases this will mean spending lots of time together in groups discussing the corporate ethics framework that needs to be developed, out of which can ultimately come the policies and procedures that people are expected to follow (or to which they should always adhere).

Three standard approaches to ethical policy: Respect, Responsibility and Results

Whatever the specific approaches may be, an ambition to be more ethical in the workplace in general will usually include at least three broad factors (or what we can simply remember as the 3 R’s) of Respect, Responsibility and Results. This are simple category headings under which any organization can aspire to create or preserve ethical behavior in the future.

The first “R” of business ethics relates to the concept of RESPECT. It is an attitude that should ideally be applied to people, organizational resources and the whole environment in which the enterprise operates.

The second “R” of business ethics is RESPONSIBILITY. This describes a responsibility to customers, colleagues and the organization as a whole (as well as to individuals within the workplace, of course).

The third “R” of business ethics relates to RESULTS. Essential in attaining results is an understanding that the way results are won – this entails that the “means” – are every bit as important if not more important than the ultimate goals.

By considering Respect, Responsibility and Results before taking any action at an individual or team level, an organization can avoid the following common rationalizations for not doing what’s right:

  • “Everyone else does it.”
  • “They’ll never miss it.”
  • “Nobody will care.”
  • “The boss does it.”
  • “No one will know.”
  • “I don’t have time to do it right.”
  • “That’s close enough.”
  • “It’s not my job.”

Of course, some of what fits under the general ethical framework will arise out of societal ethics and values. For example, the organization will need to operate within the law and to do so in concert with community expectations (as a good corporate citizen for instance) and to operate according to the rules of public safety. However, an effective ethical framework needs to go a lot further than a commitment to “stay within the law and be a safety conscious and good corporate citizen”.


We may invest huge amounts of time and energy getting corporate ethics issues at “centre stage” within the organization but this effort will only be worthwhile if we start to behave in better ways at every level across the entire workplace. Put another way, every individual needs to be demonstrably acting with more integrity in what they say and what they do for a strategy to take a consistently ethical approach to be effective.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Ethics in the Workplace | ReadyToManage « Ethics FindMay 17, 2012 at 7:05 am

    […] more here: Ethics in the Workplace | ReadyToManage Comments […]

  2. Tina M.April 8, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Organizations value professionalism and employees who “play by the rules” are hardly out of work. Ethical behavior, acting with a clear moral conscience is always the right way to go. Honesty and integrity of character should be in line with an employee’s values, believes and principles. When an employee has the trust and respect of others, they set a good example and influence others in the organization.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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