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Employee Ethics November 20, 2012

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.
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Taking a step back from our day-to-day work, it is always interesting to examine reasons and motivations for our actions. Any given industry comprises every background imaginable and represents cultures from around the globe. However, despite our differences, most professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors, even project managers) are obligated to similar ethical codes and owe a duty to the public to act for their benefit. Further, each individual is bound by their own personal morals as well as their employer’s particular culture. But what happens when an individual’s personal moral code conflicts with the firm’s?

Objectively, if an individual’s morals conform with the industry’s, there is no “right” answer. However, we know that ultimately, the employer’s policies will hold sway (he who has the gold makes the rules). In a perfect world, we can imagine that individuals and employers would seek out those whose values closely matched their own. But we all compromise to some degree, and those compromises usually involve our personal ethics (who has not felt that they have ‘sold out’ at least once in their careers?) Nonetheless, many professional codes are similar enough that we need not stray too far from our principles.

What about more philosophical topics, such as the environment, affordable housing, or sustainability? If an engineer is uncomfortable with his employer’s contribution to urban sprawl, is he obligated to act or recommend alternatives to the client, even risking the job? How much should one individual’s opinion influence the team, as opposed to the firm’s governing strategy and leadership’s decisions?

These questions require management and individuals to reach some equitable solution. The decisions will be based on the relative perceived benefits to the firm, the public, the clients, the employees, and society in general – but each will be a unique case. It is difficult to do the ‘right’ thing when there is no clear ‘wrong.’ Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of professional codes of ethics: not only do they prohibit things that are unethical (as typical laws and regulations do), but they define and promote specific positive actions to help ensure ethical behavior.

With this in mind, how might we balance the employer’s and employee’s moral codes? Unquestionably, it will be the individual’s right and obligation to point out any actions that may have questionable ethical consequences. On the other hand, professionals also have a responsibility to the employer.

If the firm’s strategy dictates that a particular project will be beneficial in the long run to the success of the business and the employees, then the individual is obligated to act accordingly. The employee should never feel trapped in a workplace that violates personal ethics, but should also recognize that the firm is within its rights to act as it sees fit to achieve success. The organization is, after all, simply a collection of individuals and their respective experiences. One of the hardest duties as a leader is demonstrating that compromise is possible and necessary to maintain a coherent effort toward the greater good.

–originally posted in CE News Civil Connection, April 2007



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