Ethics and People Management

Every day, managers and employees need to make decisions that have moral implications. And those decisions impact their companies, company shareholders, and all the other stakeholders in interest. Conducting business in an ethical manner is incumbent upon everyone in an organization for legal and business reasons. And as a manager, it’s important to understand your ethical obligations so that you can meet your company’s expectations as well as model appropriate behavior for others.

Ethics is a set of standards for judging right from wrong. At its most basic level, it means acting fairly and honestly in individual as well as group decision making. On a business level, it can refer, for example, to fair and honest competition, acting without deception or misrepresentation, and working within the boundaries of the law.

In the wake of corporate scandals over the past several years, most organizations have written or updated their Codes of Conduct and Ethics Rules. The first thing a manager should do is to read and understand those documents. That means understanding the actual words used in the documents along with the spirit and intent behind the words. The second thing to do is to be sure that your staff also reads and understands the documents and can come to you with any questions.

If you act consistently with Codes of Conduct and Ethics Rules, you provide a foundation of trust in your relationships with others. Part of your goal is to show others what it means to make ethical decisions. The other part of your goal is to encourage others to come forward if they suspect that someone is not acting ethically. As a result, your organization will be in a position to look at that behavior and stop it before it is out of control or worse, crosses the line into illegal conduct.

Everyday decisions involve ethical issues. Did you consider only legitimate business reasons for promoting some employees and not others? Was your decision to discipline a particular employee fair and consistent with how you’ve treated others? Are you tolerating behavior from some that you do not tolerate in others? These are just some examples of questions you can ask yourself to be sure you are acting responsibly and ethically.

And don’t forget that ethics rules will not always answer the issues you confront. Sometimes, for example, the line between ethical and legal conduct can get blurred. What if you found a document on the street that had sensitive information about a competitor’s product? Would you use it? It would be illegal if you stole such a document from the company’s premises, but say you found it on the street. Is it ethical to use it even though you assume that someone must have dropped it by accident? These are not easy questions but are important to consider.

As part of a company’s attempt to create an ethical work environment, it’s important to offer an effective ethics training program. And the training should include more than just a review of your company’s ethics rules. The broader topic of ethics in a global economy is very important in today’s world of international business.

Perhaps some kinds of behavior that we find acceptable in the U.S. are not acceptable in another culture, or vice versa. That doesn’t mean that some conduct should be tolerated in one place and not another. Rather, your company should set standards to which everyone can and should adhere.

Remember, as a leader in your organization, how you behave and communicate is the basis on which others will judge you. If you act ethically and require the same of others, you represent your company well and position yourself as someone your employees can respect. There is no better way to attract and retain good employees than to have the respect of those you interact with every day.

Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.

Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.