Heather K Adams
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Storyteller

Remember kindergarten? Probably not, but you do remember what you learned there: letters, how to count and so on. Know what else you learned? How to follow the rules and treat others with respect. "Sharing is caring," right? And just as those numbers and letters you began to learn way back when have served you every day since, adhering to a set standard for ethical behavior is a life skill worth paying attention to as well. It's also something you can, and should, bring into the workplace. Beyond encouraging a welcoming and collaborative environment, have a solid standards of ethics can even make or break a company's success.

What is ethical behavior in the workplace?

Ethical behavior has a twofold meaning in a workplace environment. A lot of companies operate under industry-specific ethical behavior standards that dictate a lot of their best business practices. These pertain to customer service and employee safety more often than not and are often heavily regulated and enforced. Because of this, accountability is also built into daily operations.

For those of us not operating heavy machinery or dealing with dangerous materials, ethical behavior still forms a large underlying part of our workdays. Some offices may be more casual and relaxed, for example, especially when it comes to humor, behavior and dress code. Other businesses have a much more buttoned up personality, and ethical behavior in that environment is probably both more explicitly stated and strictly enforced. 

Yet, regardless of how lax or tight the ship is run, ethical behavior and the attitude of any business' culture is influenced by company policy, standards set by people in leadership positions and socially via coworkers and peers. And while a lot of how someone is expected to behave might be spelled out in an employee handbook and during training, how those rules work on the ground won't actually be clear until that person actually becomes part of daily operations. That's when they find out which ethical behaviors and standards are maintained and which are sacrificed for the sake of cutting corners. Not coincidentally, that same "do we or don't we follow these rules?" experience is also a good indicator of a company's overall health.

Why is ethical behavior important?

• It creates a safe environment for employees. 

Ethical behavior dictates everything from dress code to the way employees should, and shouldn't, interact with each other. These rules also spell out what is considered by the company to be offensive or inappropriate language, humor and behavior. Ethical behavior standards should be companioned with explicit consequences for failing to adhere to these expectations. It shows you mean what you say and that you will take action if necessary. It also lets employees who feel offended or mistreated know they'll have support should they need to report an incident.

• Customers can tell the difference. 

When a company places an emphasis on a culture of service, its customers are going to feel seen, heard and taken care of. Teaching employees how to behave in an ethical way during customer transactions communicates and reinforces a business' standards for behavior. It's not just about how to answer a phone or greet someone when they walk in the door. Employees that understand they're actually ambassadors for their company also have a clear sense of how they can directly contribute to the success of that company.

• Rules create structure. 

A business runs better, inside and out, with those rules and consequences clearly defined. Why? Structure. A sharp company knows what it's about, and its employees understand the status quo. Knowing they're expected to uphold a certain standard of behavior. as well as work performance, puts accountability on each individual employee. It's harder to break a rule when everyone around you is following it.

• Ethics is a sure way to a solid professional reputation. 

Job seekers and potential customers are both pretty smart. They're not just going to research a company's financial stability. They're going to tune into its professional reputation, too. A company known for doing what it said it would, in the way it promised, while adhering to its ethical standards at the same time? That's a solid reputation right there — one a business will be able to take to the bank.

• Better standards can equal a leg up over the competition. 

Businesses A and B both provide the same service to their customers. And yet, Biz A is more successful. Why? Because it's the company with solid standards for ethical behavior. Biz A has a culture built around established codes of conduct that it teaches and enforces with consistency. Biz B is just a bit too lax in the areas of both service and discipline, so a customer never quite knows what kind of experience they're going to have when they walk into one of its stores. As a potential customer, which one would you choose to take your business to? Exactly.

How do you ensure ethical behavior?

We all know it's nice to be nice, to pay it forward, to follow the golden rule. But how do you bring this kind of mentality into the workplace in a way that sticks? Instilling your standards in your employees doesn't have to be a fight or a crack-the-whip situation. Done right, it can even be a marketing opportunity. Follow these tried and true methods to set rules and instill a standard of conduct in your workplace, while adding value to your company overall.

Put your ethics into writing.

The very best way to begin to establish your standards for ethical behavior is to write them down. Create a physical handbook or list of rules to consult, use as training material and display. This is the quickest way to get everyone on the same page, at work or anywhere. It lets new people know what's expected of them and also serves as a solid reminder or reference material for established employees. Because sure, things can get a little more relaxed the longer a group of people works together. But certain core standards must remain. Having that list to bring out at the next meeting or post in the break room can help goose those vets back into line. 

Lead by example.

The quickest way to chaos in a workplace is management and other upper-level folks who advocate one kind of behavior and yet display another. Why? For one thing, no one will respect those leaders who can't manage to follow their own rules or adhere to the standards of ethical behavior they're trying to enforce. For another, employees will quickly learn to follow suit, acting one way when they need to put on a show of being a good worker but totally slacking off at the nearest opportunity. Consistent examples of appropriate behavior are the backbone of a solid set of ethical standards. Your business is going to live or die based on how not just you but every one of your employees behaves on a daily basis.

Teach well.

Incorporate educating new employees about your standards for ethical behavior into your onboarding process. By communicating your expectations from day one, you'll be far less likely to face untangling a tight knot of inappropriate behavior on day one hundred. Training and reinforcement are crucial to maintaining behavioral standards.

Practice public renewal.

Why not have a periodic meeting specifically about ethics? One during which everyone at the company can discuss what works for them, what could be done better and also address any new situations they've encountered since the last time you examined your ethics and best practices. This can be done in an actual meeting or group setting, anonymously by way of surveys or both. The key is to use any and all methods that allow your employees to feel comfortable and able to speak freely. And don't forget to ask your customers as well!

Build ethics into your mission statement.

When it comes to ethical behavior, transparency is important — for you, your employees and your customers. Don't just list your rules; explain them. Getting to the heart of why you feel the way you do and how you expect everyone from your execs to the mailroom clerks to behave is a strong way to create a mission, an ethic and a business your employees can believe in and trust.

Ethical behavior in action.

In many ways big and small, your standards for ethical behavior form the culture of your business. Fleshing out a few key pillars upon which your ethics stand is the best way to clarify those standards. Companies both new and established can benefit from a little time spent with each of these and clear thoughts on the whats and whys behind them.

• Teamwork.

An environment that is collaborative rather than cutthroat reflects a code of ethical behavior that values the community as well as the individual. When you find a way to have your employees work toward a common goal, rather than waste time jockeying for favor or position, you've also created an environment in which that code of ethics is socially reinforced on a daily basis.

• Service-minded. 

Again, this is about the culture of your business. Remember "the customer is always right"? It's a bit like that, without the implied bending over backward to cater to every client's whims. Rather, it's a mindset that recognizes the client is the whole reason your business is in operation. Being glad to see them and happy to help is an attitude that reflects the deeper ethical standard of valuing the people who support your business.

• Best practices are the only practices. 

Most industries have standards of best practice specific to them in terms of safety and regulations. But there are also best practice concepts that apply to management, customer service and other areas that deal with softer skillsets. Establish and follow your own best practices for ethical behavior in these areas, consistently, in order to maintain the standards you've set for yourself, your employees and your business.

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Heather Adams is a creative content & copy writer specializing in business storytelling.