Ethics and fair treatment at Work

Ethics refers to “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group, and specifically to the standards you use to decide what your conduct should be. Ethical decisions are always characterized by two things. First, they always involve normative judgments. A normative judgment implies that something is good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse. You are wearing a “skirt and blouse” is non-normative statement; “That’s a great outfit!” is a normative one.

Ethical decisions also involve morality, which is society’s accepted standard of behavior. Moral standards differ from other standards in several ways. They address behaviors of serious consequence to society’s well-being, such as murder, lying and slander. They cannot be established or changed by decisions of authoritative bodies like legislatures, and they should override self-interest. Many people believe that moral judgments are never situational. They argue that something is morally right (or wrong) in one situation is right (or wrong) in another. Moral judgments tend to trigger strong emotions. Violating moral standards may make individuals feel ashamed or remorseful.

It would simplify things if it was always clear which decisions were ethical and which were not. Unfortunately, it is not. If the decision makes the person feel ashamed or remorseful, or involves a matter of serious consequence such as murder, then chances are it’s probably unethical. On the other hand, in some countries, bribery may be so ingrained that their citizens don’t view it as wrong. True, everyone is doing it is no excuse. However, the fact that a society doesn’t view bribery as wrong may suggest that the person offering a bribe there may not be doing something wrong, at least in terms of his or her frame of reference.

Ethics and the Law:

Furthermore, the law is not the best guide about what is ethical, because something may be legal but not right, and something may be right but not legal. You can make a decision that involves ethics (such as firing an employee) based on what is legal. However, that doesn’t mean the decision will be ethical. Firing a 38-year-old employee with 20 years’ tenure without notice or cause may be unethical, but it is still legal, for instance. Patrick Gnazzo, vice president for business practices at United Technologies Corp. (and a former trial lawyer), put it this way: Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. We were all raised with essentially the same values. Ethics means making decisions that represent what you stand for, not just what the laws are. Sometimes behavior is legal and unethical. For example, one hue producer and processor recently had to respond to a federal indictment charging it with smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico to cut factory costs.

Ethics, Fair Treatment, and Justice:

Managing human resources often requires making decisions in which fairness plays a big role. You hire one candidate and reject another, promote one and demote another pay one more and one less, and settle one’s grievances wile rejecting another’s. How employees react to these decisions depends, to a large extent, on whether they think the decisions and the processes that led up to them were fair.

Fairness is an integral part of what most people think of as “justice.” A company that is just is, among other things, equitable, fair, impartial, and unbiased in the ways it does things. With respect to employee relations, experts generally define organizational justice in terms of its three components – distributive justice, procedural justice, and interpersonal or interactive justice. Distributive justice refers to the fairness and justice of the decision’s result (for instance, did I get an equitable pay raise?) Procedural justice refers to the fairness of the process (for instance, is the process my company uses to allocate merit raises fair?) Interactional or interpersonal justice refers to the manner in which managers conduct their interpersonal dealings with employees and in particular to the degree to which they treat employees with dignity as opposed to abuse or disrespect (for instance, does my superior treat me with respect?)

Companies where fairness and justice prevail also tend to be ethical companies. One study focused on how employees reacted to fair treatment. It concluded that “to the extent that survey respondents believed that employees were treated fairly… [they] reported less unethical behavior in their organizations. They also reported that employees in their organizations were more in the area of ethical issues [and] more likely to ask for ethical advice. Similarly, [H]iring, performance evaluation, discipline, and terminations can be ethical issues because they all involve honesty, fairness and the dignity of the individual. In practice, fair treatment reflects concrete actions such as “employees are trusted”, employees are treated with respect and employees are treated fairly. Most employees associate fairness with ethical behavior.

Workplace unfairness can be blatant. Some supervisors are ‘workplace bullies’ yelling at or ridiculing subordinates, humiliating them, and sometime even making threats. The employer should, of course, always prohibit such behavior, and many firms do have anti-harassment policies. For example, at the Oregon Department of Transportation It is the policy of the department that all employees, customers, contractors and visitors to the work site are entitled to a positive, respectful and productive work environment, free behavior, actions, [and] language not constituting workplace harassment. Not surprisingly, employees of abusive supervisors are more likely to quit their jobs, and to report lower job and life satisfaction and higher stress if they remain in those jobs.

Some of the things that motivate managers to be fair may (or may not) be surprise. For one thing, the old saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” seems to be true. One study investigated the extent to which assertiveness on the subordinate’s part influenced the fairness with which with which the person’s supervisor treated his or her. Did supervisors treat pushier employees more fairly? Yes, they did: Individuals who communicated assertively were likely to be treated fairly by the decision maker. Studies also suggest that large organizations have to work particularly hard to set up procedures that make the workplace seem fair to employees.

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