Drawing The Line At Work

DRAWING THE LINE” or knowing your boundaries of right and wrong in the workplace gains renewed significance in the face of the ethical and moral crisis in the governance of our country today that has spawned an economic turbulence affecting the ordinary man’s pockets. Certainly, an ethical and moral crisis of this magnitude is caused not merely by a few persons in power but is really part of a larger system of unethical and immoral behavior practiced, encouraged or, at very least, allowed to flourish by certain members of society. This crisis indeed poses a question, as we demand the highest ethical and moral behavior from the highest officials of the land, are we ourselves hewing to basic ethical and moral standards at work and in our personal lives? In the workplace, are we aware and do we conscientiously follow ethical standards for our professions and as required by the company?

While the ethical and moral, and even legal, behavior of our country’s leaders are placed under microscopic examination, it is perhaps worthwhile to take this opportunity to examine our own ethical and moral behavior at work and in our daily lives. As preachers love to say, when you point a finger to others, the rest of the four fingers of your hand point to yourself.
A good book to consult on this subject is Nan DeMars’ “You Want Me To Do What? When, Where and How to Draw the Line at Work.” Her book provides a simple and easily understandable discussion on the complex issue of ethics in the workplace. The author was an executive assistant and corporate secretary for 20 years and her exposure to all kinds of ethical dilemmas at the highest levels of the corporation sparked her interest in building an ethical workplace. Now an international consultant and columnist, she conducts seminars and writes on office ethics.

Hardly Discussed

For many people at work, ethics is an issue that’s hardly discussed. Yes, all employees are expected to be honest and trustworthy, not to lie or steal, and basically do their work the best they can. But since people have varying levels of ethical awareness and standards, as well as varying definitions of what’s moral or immoral, there are many situations that can cause ethical dilemmas and problems. Because of this, when the question, “Is what I’m doing (or being asked to do) ethical?” is asked, the response is usually, “It depends!

Thus, DeMars starts off the book by clarifying the definition and framework of ethics. DeMars says that ethics is a code of conduct or a set of rules that guide our behavior that is rooted in our moral values. When people act in alignment with their moral values, it is said that they are behaving ethically. When they are not, they are said to behave unethically. She makes it a point to distinguish office ethics and business ethics. The former, she says, focuses on individual and interpersonal relationships at work while the latter focuses on corporate conduct or how the company relates with its stakeholders, as a matter of policy.

Different Standards

She also delineates legal, ethical and moral standards (words that are often discussed nowadays). She clarifies that “the legal standard is the minimal standard” while “ethical standards are the next higher step on the hierarchy of standards.” Moral conduct, she writes, implies the highest standards of conduct guided by personal principles, va¬lues and virtues. DeMars puts these all together simply, “The law tells you what you should not do, ethics tell you what you should do, and morals tell you what you should aspire to do.

DeMars believes that promoting ethical standards in the workplace is a key to productivity. She writes, “The productivity gains in an ethical office occurs through better communication, mutual trust and mutual respect. Shared office ethics does wonders for morale, too… When there is a common expectation about how we are to treat each other and how to behave under certain circumstances, people do their best work. Office ethics show up on the bottom line as teamwork and a ‘can do’ attitude that drives everyday tasks.

Grave Dilemmas

But what if the corporate culture condones unethical conduct or the management of a corporation are themselves not adhering to ethical standards? This gives rise to grave ethical dilemmas that force an employee to choose between job security or loyalty and his moral values. This is particularly relevant in our country where Filipino culture gives value to “pakikisama.” Certainly, there are many ethical transgressions that are committed in our workplaces due to misguided loyalty to bosses or peer pressure from co-workers. A secretary may automatically follow her boss’ instructions without question even if she vaguely thinks that what her boss is asking her to do is illegal. (If a certain key witness in the Blue Ribbon investigation were to be believed, this was what happened in her case.) Or an employee may refuse to report another co-worker who he has seen stealing because he does not want to “snitch” on a co-union member.


DeMars gives varied situations of these ethical dilemmas in her book. What’s more important, she also gives as many alternative ethical actions to these dilemmas as well. Aside from these, she gives the reader frameworks for making ethical choices. For example, she writes that one would know an action to be ethical if one were to answer the following questions: Would you want to be treated the same way? What would your mother (or father or spouse or kids) say about what you plan to do? How would you feel if this was reported on the front page of the newspaper?

Despite the cynicism or indifference to ethical behavior in many offices, DeMars dangles a tantalizing vision of the ethical workplace. She writes that an ethical office features a climate that promotes fairness, mutual respect and enjoys the trust and benefit of customers and employees. Now isn’t this an ideal workplace for everyone? She encourages everyone to try to create the ideal ethical office. She believes that if the issue of ethics is brought out in every office and awareness is brought to all levels of the organization, the achievement of the ethical office may not be such a far-off vision.
While DeMars’ book is written from the corporate perspective, its discussions on ethics, right and wrong, can benefit everyone even (or specially?) those in government and other sectors of our society. Wouldn’t this be a nice early Christmas gift to your favorite senator?

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer November 29, 2000

Photo credit: www.sxc.hu


Founding Editor, People at Work, Business, Phiippine Daily Inquirer

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