The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

What Is Good and What Is Right

Ethics“If your institution doesn’t define what is ethical behavior and what isn’t, employees will define it for themselves.”
Betsy Webb, professional development and training manager, Montana State University (from her CUPA-HR Annual Conference 2013 session, “What Is Good and What Is Right: Ethics Training for Higher Education Institutions”)

The term “ethical behavior” means different things to different people. Conduct that may be unthinkable to one individual may be “no big deal” to another. And although some individuals certainly commit workplace misconduct and engage in unethical behavior for personal gain or self-promotion, others engage in such behavior for less devious reasons: misguided loyalty; pressure to succeed, meet deadlines or fit in; ambition; or maybe they simply don’t know what “the right thing to do” is in a certain situation. This is why it’s important for institutions to have a code of ethics, and for HR to conduct annual ethics training for all employees.

In her annual conference presentation, Webb asked audience members how many had observed misconduct in the workplace in the past 12 months. An astounding 90 percent reported that they had. Sixty-seven percent indicated that they reported the misconduct. And 36 percent of session attendees said that they had felt pressure from others to commit workplace misconduct.

Consider the following scenarios:

  1. An employee uses a company copier to make a few personal copies.
  2. A staff member does some “exploring” on a university computer to find out where another employee lives.
  3. A non‐exempt employee has not completed her expected work hours. She misreports her hours, just for one pay period, with the intent of making up the time during the next pay period.
  4. An employee shares confidential background check information on a new employee with a friend who is not associated with the new employee and does not know him in any way.

Which scenario do you find least egregious? Which do you find most egregious? Do you agree with session attendees, who found the most grievous action to be sharing confidential information, and the least grievous to be using the company copier to make personal copies? Should all of these scenarios be defined as “misconduct” or “unethical behavior,” and should they all be reported? Why or why not? (Hint: an institutional code of ethics and proper ethics training would probably take some of the guesswork out of this!) Share your thoughts in the comments below.