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I'm Just an Employee, What Do I Have to Do With Company Ethics?
by Bruce Hamm


Because of the recent scandals, today we often speak of business ethics at the highest levels. Issues like defrauding investors, management excesses and insider trading are all examples of how the highest-level employees can cause issues. Sure, CEOs, CFOs and others with C-level titles have an enormous impact on our companies' cultures and ethics but what about those of us at the lower end of the corporate ladder? What do we have to do to meet ethical standards? How can we promote and live a principle based work-life?

Hiring Process/Agreements

The first place for us to review is before we even become employees. We must first look at the hiring process and what agreements we make with our potential employer. As prospective employees, what responsibility do we have when making an agreement with an employer during the hiring process? To explore that question, it might be better to start by answering the following question: What agreements can and do employees generally make during the hiring process?

Just as potential employers have a duty to supply valid information in a position description, we have a duty to supply valid information in a resume or application. Once the company has decided to call us in for an interview, they have a duty to ask valid questions for the position while we have a duty to answer those questions truthfully. As potential employees, we have the right to ask questions about the job, the company and the people with whom we might be working.

Probably the largest responsibility both the company and the applicant share is the salary negotiation. That shared responsibility is to bargain for a salary that is fair for both parties; one that compensates the employee for the value they bring to the company. Once both parties agree to that salary, both should be satisfied with the terms of the agreement for the length of that arrangement. Some jobs have specific periods for salary increases. Others have different criteria for salary review.

Another area that often arises is about specific duties. Often jobs come with descriptions but with the rapid changes that occur in today's marketplace, we should all be as reasonably flexible as possible when circumstances require change to those duties. Things that could change are shift start and end time, specific duties, required overtime, increase or decrease in travel, organizational restructuring, software used or allowed, etc.

Completing Job Duties

The next area for review is actually carrying out our job duties. Do we give our best to each of our job tasks? Should we devote ourselves 110% as the adage goes? We have a responsibility to meet certain criteria for successful performance. However, we are human and have all the basic weaknesses. We all have problems in our lives, sickness, relationship problems, etc. that take an emotional, and thereby an energy depriving, toll on our abilities. To meet our agreement with the company, we should give as consistent a performance as possible over time. No common-sense supervisor expects us to bury our feelings through these circumstances in ordinary times. That said, how is our performance to the overall goal in general? Are we consistently on time, do we perform our tasks with minimal error, do we reliably contribute to the corporate goal, are we a team player where it is appropriate. In other words, can we be relied on to do a good job?

Company Resources

Another area for us to consider is how we use company resources. Company resources require someone to expend money. The owners, private or public, of a company have to take their hard-earned capital and purchase the resources. Do we take care with the equipment at our disposal? Are we putting our best effort into our work? Are we accurately accounting for only legitimate expenses? What about our relationships at work with both internal personnel and customers? Are we treating people with respect and protecting this valuable resource for both the company and ourselves? Are we creating a positive atmosphere where people see value in our relationships or do we throw them away as if they were worthless?

Loyalty Versus Truth

This is the area where most conflict will come at work for the average employee. Do I report suspected wrongdoing or do I keep my mouth shut? Having a job depend on being a team player is a powerful incentive for employees to keep quiet about questionable behavior. What is the line between the conflicting values of loyalty and truth? How much loyalty should we give to our companies, especially if it conflicts with our ethical duties?

For the most part, our companies offer us a wage to care for our families, health insurance, invigorating relationships, stimulating work environments and allowing us to feel a part of something larger. For that, we owe the company some measure of allegiance. Completing our tasks well, not divulging inside information, protecting our companies' interests and developing solid relationships with our clients and co-workers are all parts of our responsibility to our companies.

There are really two types of loyalty within our work lives. There is the loyalty to the company as an organization and the personal loyalties we might have for our boss or co-workers. Our bosses, if effective, look out for our welfare, offer us stimulating assignments, provide valuable feedback about our performance and smooth the way for us to be able to do our jobs well. We may feel some sense of affection for our managers such that we are willing to overlook some minor quirks in their behavior. Is that an acceptable practice? Should we overlook the peccadilloes of our higher-ups?

If those behaviors are simply character eccentricities, then a certain amount of latitude is not only acceptable but is right, especially when we realize we have our own idiosyncrasies. If, however, actions rise to the level of violating either company policy or the law, we should carefully consider whether to remain silent about what we observe. If the behavior is such that it is a breach of the law, could affect the reputation of the company, could affect the viability of our working relationships, then it is time to consider reporting those activities to the appropriate authority.

How do we know what is the appropriate authority? Public companies are increasingly establishing robust ethics programs and even if they do not have specific ethics personnel, organizations usually have some sort of reporting mechanism that allows for anonymity in most cases. If the conduct is something we feel comfortable talking out with our supervisor, then that is an appropriate method of dealing with those issues. If, however, the conduct is by our supervisor or someone with whom they may have a solid relationship, then going outside the chain of command may be appropriate. Often that is either some sort of third-party reporting agency, the human resource department or even in some circumstances, the audit committee of the Board of Directors.

Fink! Rat! Stool Pigeon! Traitor!

What will people think if they discover I reported someone for misbehavior? If I report anonymously, does that guarantee no one will know I offered the report? There is no way any ethics program can guarantee absolute anonymity. Program administrators work very hard to do everything reasonable to ensure protection but there are times when it is impossible to keep the confidence of those reporting workplace issues. Sometimes it is the nature of the report itself, because only certain people have access to the kind of information in the report. Sometimes, it is because the nature of the investigation requires a reporting party to come forward to fully probe the potential issue. Be assured that measures to prevent retaliation are one of the priorities for ethics personnel because that preserves the credibility of the program and the company's stance on its values.

Questioning Authority

Another area to review is questioning authority. How many of you have to think hard about approaching someone senior in your organization to tell them there is something the company might need to rethink? I call this "The Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome" after the classic fable. What do you say to someone who has the power of terminating your employment when you see something that is completely obvious to everyone except those whom it concerns? In fact, the first decision is to gauge whether something rises to the level of needing extraordinary attention.

It has long been my position that I am not the world's teacher (much less being worthy of such a title) and thus I need not convey one's faults to them. In other words, one of my pet peeves is unsolicited advice. However, there is a point where those in authority may need a voice that can provide dissent to their authority about potentially questionable decisions and behaviors. Do those in authority have such a voice? Some companies go so far as to designate a "devil's advocate" to raise objections about management decisions. I will leave the question to you of whether your management structure has the trust in your organization to encourage such healthy behavior.

Should you take it on yourself to raise objections to questionable behavior or decisions? I encourage you to consider the answer to that carefully. However, I recommend that you decide your stance before such circumstances arise. Do you have a plan for raising your questions? What could be the outcome to your company, your customers, your co-workers and your community, should you decide not to bring something forward? Do you have a relationship conducive for raising doubts within your group? What has been your experience in the past? What has happened to others who brought up doubts? Is there a way to raise those misgivings anonymously and avoid possible adverse reactions to you and your family? Should you step forward and put yourself at risk based on the nature of the activity? Consider each of these questions carefully, as the future of your career may be at stake, then make your decision and do the right thing.

Finally, I would like to review the title of this article. Am I really just an employee? If I am, maybe I haven't made a commitment to my employer to add value to our relationship. As a worker-bee, I am one of many who make my company work by assisting our clients, creating a product or service that they need and depend on, earning profit for the owners and generally allowing a company to be successful. By using the word, "just", it implies I am not as important to the company's future as the CEO or others at the top of the company hierarchy. That is far from the truth, for without me the company might not be successful. It takes all of us meeting both our individual responsibilities as well as our collective responsibilities to keep a company on the right path for achieving both its mission and its ethical success.


The Author

Bruce Hamm

Bruce Hamm studied for the Catholic priesthood obtaining a BA in philosophy with an emphasis on ethics.  He has experience as a volunteer police officer.  He has over eight years in US Navy combat operations, coordinating a tactical data link between various battle group elements, controlling combat aircraft and instructing combat operations.  Then entering corporate management, Bruce conducted numerous workplace investigations, managed compliance for one employer and developed a Business Ethics program for another.  In 2001, he completed the “Managing Ethics in Organizations” Executive Development Course from the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College and the Ethics Officer Association.  Combining his practical understanding of how organizations work with his desire to create healthy corporate cultures, he earned an MBA in Organizational Effectiveness at Marylhurst University.  Bruce is now also an adjunct instructor with DeVry University Online teaching Business Ethics and other general business topics.  Bruce is WatchIT’s Business Ethics and Compliance, Subject Matter Expert.  With two other professionals, Bruce was instrumental in the formation and continuing development of The Greater Omaha Alliance for Business Ethics.  Contact Bruce at and visit

Many more articles in Ethics in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2006 by Bruce Hamm. All rights reserved.

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