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`...character, in the long run, will...`

Workplace ethics serious challenge to businesses

In a recent “Close To Home” cartoon, personnel manager Boyd Dinkins, as a test of character, vowed to hire only those applicants who dared to tell him about a piece of spinach on his lip. One blubbering candidate referred to taking a job “teaching spinach…I mean Spanish,” but apparently didn’t pass the test. Have ethics left the workplace? Are you lying to C.Y.A.?

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Ronald E. Drabman, director of training and psychology programs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. “Right now, you’re seeing people achieving the ends they want and justifying the means. Everybody does it. Look at the legislature. What they just recently did (by boosting their retirement packages) was cheating, wouldn’t you say? When you see so much of it, people are somewhat desensitized to it and don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing.”

Harold Ingram, president of PerforMax, Inc., a medical staffing service in Jackson, said the lack of workplace ethics is one of the most disturbing problems facing organizations today.

“Our society seems to now reflect some of the philosophies introduced in the ‘60s & ‘70s,” Ingram said. “It appears that ‘situational ethics’ is now the norm. In other words, the situation determines whether or not the response is acceptable. Many organizations have slowly drifted away from principles to guide them and we humans have the most amazing ability to rationalize. Therefore, we can justify almost every action we take because we feel the circumstances were so unique to us that our action was reasonable and correct.”

`YOU OWE ME` MENTALITY AT WORK

Danny E. Daniel of Behavioral Health Specialists in Ridgeland, said society has developed an entitlement philosophy of life that spills over into the work environment.

“Society has adopted a sort of ‘you owe it to me’ philosophy which eliminates the usual guilt associated with dishonest words and actions,” Daniel said. “In addition, the widespread use of alcohol and drugs in the workplace has dulled the moral conscience to issues of right and wrong resulting in employee theft and poor performance. Employee assistance programs can assist organizations by providing an employee and his family a confidential resource in dealing with many of these critical issues which effect not only the company, but the employee’s performance on the job.”

Management experts concur that trust in the workplace has been eroding for the last two decades, primarily because of layoff and acquisition binges and the expedited pace of change.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Drabman. “People are less loyal to employers and employers are less loyal to people. Clearly, people in the current generation have more jobs in their lifetime. The loyalty is more to themselves and their families than to their employers. And they feel less loyalty from their employers.”

GUILT? WHAT GUILT?

The real change is that people generally don’t feel guilty about being dishonest, Drabman said.

“If you ask people if honesty is the best policy, they’ll say ‘yes, of course’,” he said. “But if you look at their actions, that doesn’t seem to be the case and they don’t seem to feel guilty about it.”

Research has revealed another alarming trend — tolerated cheating, Drabman said.

“In surveys of students from elementary to college level, we’re seeing an enormous amount of cheating,” he said. “Significantly, there seems to be an enormous amount of toleration. In the past, people who cheated felt it was a bad thing. Now, we’re seeing more signs of people that don’t consider it important.”

The introduction of corporate ethics officers and the offering of business ethics courses on college campuses have occurred because people have lost a common ethical base, Ingram said.

“It seems that the modern mantra is that ‘the ends do justify the means and it’s only important if it’s important to me,’” he said. “It is apparent that we are having some difficulty in developing our value systems. In fact, there is no basis from which our society draws to establish a common value system. With the emphasis on the individual, the individual’s rights and concern about the individual, there naturally is a de-emphasis on the universal issues. Without strong ethics guiding an organization and its employees, there can be little trust within that organization, which is the basis for much of an organization’s long term success.”

LACK OF TRUST CAN LEAD TO FAILURE

Trust is such a critical element in the workplace that some new management approaches include restructuring the office from the traditional hierarchical approach to a self-directed team approach, Ingram said.

“Each organization has a personality that is comprised of both the people of the organization and the values they espouse,” he said. “Values provide the platform from which ethics are derived. It is from our commitment to our values and principles that we develop character. And character, in the long run, will probably be the most important defining characteristic of a company.”

Many businesses have failed because of unethical behavior, Ingram said.

“I’ve experienced the damage employees can have within an organization with unethical behavior,” he said. “I have also seen the failure of individuals and organizations that have been unethical in their dealings with customers. With the many different types of people in America, and even our state, we are experiencing challenges to the Judeo-Christian based value system. Without a common value system with ‘absolutes,’ I fear we may one day evolve into a society with one guiding principle — profit. It does not matter who gets hurt if profits are made.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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