Unfortunately, employee misconduct is common. Disgruntled workers breach their companies’ codes of conduct all the time. Whether by misusing company time, taking credit for others’ work or harassing their colleagues — among many other examples — disgruntled employees raise many ethical issues in the workplace.

Despite the pervasiveness of such behavior, employee misconduct often goes unreported for a variety of reasons. Colleagues may feel threatened by their unscrupulous coworkers, or they may fear backlash for “tattling.” Still others might simply choose to look the other way to avoid conflict.

Regardless why such behavior goes unreported, there is a huge discrepancy between the number of cases that come to light and the actual number of violations. A 2015 research report conducted by the National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) shows that 62 percent of employees in large companies (those consisting of 90,000 or more employees) have witnessed misconduct, but only 32 percent of those surveyed actually reported what they saw. Unfortunately, of the 68 percent of employees who did report unethical behavior to their supervisors, 59 percent of them experienced retaliation that negatively affected their future performance.

So what, exactly, can employers do to mitigate employee misconduct while alleviating fears of retaliation for those who witness it? While there is no simple answer, there are some methods of addressing ethical issues in the workplace.

Introduce a Policy

Most large companies enforce codes of ethics that clearly state the definition of, and the punishment for, employee misconduct. These documents provide information about a company’s mission statement and philosophy, and they define the standard to which employees must hold themselves.

However, companies should revisit these codes of ethics from time to time to accommodate new trends and changes in national practice. When it is time to update the code, managers should solicit buy-in from their employees to get insight into the issues people “on the ground” face every day. By including everyone in this process, managers and executives demonstrate the value of the entire team.

Provide Resources and Education

When business leaders amend their codes of ethics, they may see pushback from employees who refuse to change. More often than not, this results from employees not understanding how to implement these changes. However, just because they may have a tough time adjusting to new practices does not mean they are completely incapable of doing so.

Employers must provide educational opportunities for all employees in order to successfully implement policy changes. This may include literature or multimedia presentations explaining the importance of the changes, “icebreaker” games that demonstrate acceptable behavior or workshops with experts in the ethics field. Employers and employees alike can become more familiar with advanced business ethics through Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s online Master of Business Administration program.

The same NBES study showed that this kind of policy education has a dramatic effect on workplace misconduct, reducing misconduct rates to 33 percent. Furthermore, instances of retaliation for blowing the whistle dropped to a mere 4 percent. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a drastic increase in the number of reported offenses (87 percent).

Employers can effectively implement these programs by explaining the rationale behind them, including what necessitated the changes, how they will improve employee relations and how they will benefit individual workers. When employees actually understand the importance of continuing education rather than simply going through required motions, they are more likely to fully comply.

Employ a Confidential System

Although employees may understand that they will not suffer repercussions for blowing the whistle, they may still be hesitant to do so for fear of alienating their coworkers. Nobody wants to be known as the office tattletale.

To alleviate this issue, managers should set up a confidential system for reporting ethical violations. Similarly, managers should handle discipline confidentially to protect the privacy of those they need to confront. Most importantly, supervisors should never to punish an entire team for the actions of one or two workers.

Be Consistent

Once managers implement a system of dealing with ethical issues in the workplace, everyone must adhere to the policy exactly as detailed. When employees sign the new policy, indicating their understanding and pledging their compliance, they agree to hold themselves to a higher standard and to face the consequences of not doing so. Employers must agree to hold themselves to this same standard. If either side compromises the agreement, the system will fail.

Companies will never be completely free of misconduct and disgruntled employees. However, supervisors can implement policies to minimize the number of ethical issues in the workplace. By training those who are willing to learn and terminating those who are not, employers can make the workplace safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

Learn more about the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi online MBA program.


ECI: State of Ethics in Large Companies

Business.com: Does Your Business Need a Code of Ethics or Conduct?

The Wall Street Journal: Turning Employees Into Ethics Believers