Four Dimensions of Workplace Ethics

by James McDonough

Bulletin,  Ethical Practice,  HR Expertise and Support,  Leadership

Challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic have preoccupied most businesses’ agenda over the last year; with vaccinations come hopes for a resumption of activities aligned with strategic plans. One such effort, oft overlooked, is workplace ethics and compliance. Crucial for organizational health and sustainability, ethics may be difficult to tackle, an intangible quality that may be difficult to quantify. Yet a failure of workplace ethics can be as devastating as a pandemic; newsworthy examples include Enron, Volkswagon, Wells Fargo, Weinstein Company.

By contrast, successful workplace ethics and compliance could be defined by an absence of problems. Though an absence of problems may be the desired end state, how can ethics success be achieved? How does an employer know they are succeeding? How can workplace ethics be lived on a daily basis?

The Employers-Council-Code of Ethics(GBES) utilizes a framework to identify and measure workplace ethics that may help business leaders and HR professionals who seek specific action steps to build a culture that supports ethics and compliance.

Citing data tracked over 20 years in the American workplace, GBES asserts, “The strength of an organization’s ethics culture is measured through multiple indicators of employee behaviors at various levels within an organization, including leaders, supervisors, and coworkers.” GBES defines four dimensions to workplace ethics: Pressure, Observation, Reporting, Retaliation. Here’s an overview of each dimension and practical considerations to create success through tangible workplace interactions:


What pressures do employees regularly experience concerning dissenting opinions? When faced with concerns over workplace experiences, are they empowered to step forward regularly with concerns or under pressure to toe the line and remain silent? Workplace cultures that provide employees with psychological safety to express concerns are more likely to reduce the negative forces of fear and self-preservation that undermine ethics.


What do employees learn from observing workplace Leaders? How do Leaders react to and deal with objections voiced by others in a public manner? How are colleagues treated by managers when they ask probing questions or offer alternative perspectives? What do they see/ hear around the water cooler when an employee reports a concern? Observations of Leadership behaviors, typical daily interactions, and responses to employee reports are all likely to define employee behaviors far more than any policy.


Employee handbooks often include an ethics policy with a defined process for employees to report concerns around ethics and compliance. This is a good way to orient employees, but more action is needed to onboard them to the importance of ethics. For example, how are new employees onboarded to what ethics “looks like” in the organization? What kinds of unique situations may they face? What exactly does “reporting” involve? How are newly-promoted supervisors/ managers/ leaders re-onboarded to the importance of ethics/ compliance and the heightened responsibilities after promotion?


Beyond anti-retaliation statements in an ethics policy, what do employees experience after they report a concern? Are they supported and protected or treated as a “problem” and subject to negative consequences? How are supervisors/ managers supported to deal with their feelings after a complaint has been received about them? If ignored, their feelings may influence their behaviors in subtle ways that can negatively impact their effectiveness. Festering resentments hurt team performance, and overall workplace culture may suffer from discomfort around ethics and compliance.

Creating a workplace culture that consistently and sustainably follows ethical practices and values compliance requires meaningful effort. If workplace ethics and compliance are part of your strategy to move forward in 2021, Employers Council offers an array of resources and services to help members. Here’s a guidance paper on a Business Code of Ethics. On the Member Portal, there are numerous policies related to various practices in the “Business Ethics” section of the Employee Handbook Planning Guide. Facilitated conversations, Leadership coaching, customized surveys, and employee training are all components of a robust ethics and compliance strategy; contact Employers Council for help with using membership services, expertise, and resources to achieve your goals.

About the author
James McDonough

James McDonough, HR Research Consultant, consults with Employers Council members to provide guidance and support on their organizational practices. He writes articles, conducts presentations and trainings on HR compliance, organizational effectiveness and business management topics. A graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder, James has worked in the public and private sectors in HR and business management.