3 Ways to Ensure Your Company Stays Ethical Despite Economic Challenges

In any competition, there’s the temptation to win at all costs. Business environments aren’t any different, as they’re competitive by nature. Cutting corners to get ahead is, unfortunately, more common than we’d like to think. The pressure to perform can drive people to commit questionable acts, steering a company down a slippery slope.
ethical issues in economics
When you add economic challenges to the list of pressures, taking shortcuts may seem like the only way out. Unethical behaviors and business cultures sometimes arise out of a quest for survival. However, as news stories have shown over the years, shady practices can spell the end of a company’s existence. The more ethical your business is, the more likely you’ll achieve long-term success. Despite the trials your company may face, here are three ways to stay on the up and up.

1. Company-Wide Governance Programs

Even within startups, silos can form. One set of people oversees information technology, while another handles sales and customer service. In each of these areas is a different leader with a distinct perspective. Department managers usually think about the work they must accomplish and whom they should immediately please. They don’t always see how their department’s actions impact the whole company.

In addition, silos can increase internal competition. Departments and individual team members try to one up each other rather than create a cohesive environment. Animosities may form because of an employee’s priorities or personality. But internal strife can also happen when one area doesn’t understand why another department does what it does. For instance, sales personnel who work in a company’s retail stores might believe the e-commerce division is stealing their thunder.

Store sales associates may especially feel this way if commissions are their primary bread and butter. Say the company’s leadership constantly changes commission structures and targets. Perhaps the goals are unrealistic, even when the economy is not in a downturn. Any potential sale routed to e-commerce isn’t just another lost opportunity. It means a lower paycheck and perhaps the loss of a job.

The perceived e-commerce threat may become an excuse to engage in unethical sales practices to meet targets. Implementing a company-wide governance, risk, and compliance program can expose the root cause of symptoms like these. Also known as GRC programs, these initiatives reveal cultural practices and structures that increase the risk of unethical behaviors. Leaders can address unhealthy dynamics by seeing how various policies impact the entire company.

2. Clear, Documented Expectations

People often consider ethics a gray area. In some cases, there isn’t a perfect path to take. Personal social media posts are an example. It might be blatantly unethical to disclose your company’s trade secrets online. Yet posting rants about a business’s policies may not be so clear-cut.

If those posts air general grievances, they may not cross the line. But what if they influence enough people to damage the company’s reputation? As a result, the business starts to lose sales in sufficient quantities to make a dent in the balance sheet. This action could be unethical because it’s open disloyalty to the company and may even violate non-disclosure agreements.

Researchers estimate more than one-third of U.S. employees sign NDAs. While these documents usually protect a company’s proprietary information, they can also raise ethical questions. For instance, NDAs may make employees hesitant to speak up about unsafe work practices. While employees have a legal right to report violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, an NDA may muddy the waters.

Documenting clear expectations for employee conduct prevents misunderstandings and gray areas. Social media policies can outline what’s acceptable, including which employees can post on behalf of the company. If NDAs are part of a business’s practices, these agreements can outline exclusions such as unsafe or hostile work environments. Workers should be clear on what they can and can’t talk about.

3. Reinforce Ethical Decision-Making

When leaders brush small questionable behaviors aside, they can spiral into something bigger. Employees may be more likely to test managers’ resolve if they see a lax approach. They might also adopt unethical practices because it’s how others in the company get things done. Or employees may be reluctant to bring up unethical or unsafe practices because they fear management won’t support them.

In the manufacturing industry, around one in three workers witness misconduct. Yet employees lower on the company’s totem pole are less likely to feel comfortable speaking up. In manufacturing, 74% of corporate workers are OK with raising their concerns, while only 57% of production employees feel comfortable doing so. These figures show how internal culture — and corporate pecking orders — can shape behaviors.

Leadership’s responses, including those of frontline managers, will speak volumes. Say employees raise concerns in safety meetings about aged equipment. But management doesn’t take them seriously until a worker is injured. Worse, the eventual response is a band-aid solution that fails to remove the equipment from the work environment. To employees, leadership’s response reinforces the idea that physical safety doesn’t matter as much as keeping costs down.

If workers have concerns in the future, they’ll be less likely to say something. They may also develop a lax attitude toward safety by disregarding appropriate procedures. What starts as a little slack may lead to improper training of new hires, compliance violations, and repeated serious “accidents.” But if leadership nips safety concerns in the bud, it reinforces a culture built on strong ethics and humane practices.

Staying Ethical During Challenging Times

It’s human nature to want to get ahead. Competition is inevitable in life and business. Nonetheless, resorting to dishonest and non-compliant practices in the face of economic challenges won’t deliver long-term results.

Your business will have a greater chance of coming out on the other side by upholding ethical behaviors. Operating this way may begin with leadership resolve. But it ends with holistic compliance programs and honorable decisions by everyone from the C-suite on down to the front lines.