Workplace Ethics: Protecting Your Employees and Your Business
The term "workplace ethics" addresses a variety of topics. From sexual harassment, to civil rights infractions, to privacy concerns, the term is a catch-all for describing appropriate workplace behavior. Simply put, workplace ethics are the standards by which you dictate how your employees should treat each other and your business. A clearly stated and published policy of required and prohibited employee activity will create a stable working environment for your employees and at the same time will provide protection for your business against claims of workplace ethics violations. Furthermore, depending on where your business resides, state laws may require you to have certain ethics policies in writing.
Traditionally, ethics policies have been inserted into employee handbooks or presented as a separate document to new employees on their first day of work. The most important thing you can do if you decide to write and institute an ethics policy is to make sure that every employee receives and reads the policy thoroughly and signs an acknowledgment statement declaring that her or she has read and understood the policy. An ethics policy does you absolutely no good if it is never presented to your workers and is never enforced.
Some employers have been counseled over the years against implementing written employee handbooks for fear that the handbooks may be construed as a contract for employment, limiting an employer's ability to terminate employees "at will." However, the trend in most states is that a well drafted employee handbook that does not state or imply that it is a contract of employment will not be used against an employer in an at-will discharge situation but, rather, is a written statement of the workplace policies and procedures of an at-will employee relationship.
Employers electing to draft and implement written handbooks should be cautioned not to use "canned" employee handbook forms as most workplace ethic laws are state specific and generic employee handbook forms often do not comply with state law requirements. Your company's employee handbook should be specifically tailored to your business and should recognize the local requirements for the state or states in which your employees work.
A written ethics policy must also be administered correctly. A single manager should be appointed to be responsible for the distribution of company ethics policies to each current and newly hired employee. Further, that same manager should be responsible for handling all ethics related complaints, including receiving the complaints from the employee, investigating the allegations raised, documenting the files, and recommending appropriate corrective action. Without an administrative process of disseminating and enforcing ethics policies, a disgruntled employee may use the employer's lack of enforcement as evidence of the employer's disregard of its own stated ethics policies.
Employers have great latitude in stating required workplace ethics. How far-reaching to make your ethics policy is ultimately your business decision. It is recommended that at least the following areas of workplace behavior should be covered:
Sexual Harassment. Your policy should outline inappropriate conduct in the workplace. Also, make sure there is a clearly designated manager or person of authority that employees can report to if they feel they are being harassed. The manager responsible for handling harassment claims should have a well-defined process for receiving, investigating and dealing with verified instances of harassment.
Civil Rights. Civil rights and denial of equal opportunity claims are perhaps the most frequently filed ethics claims against employers. Most states have specific statutes dealing with civil rights, and your best guide as to how to draft your policy is to follow the language according to your state law. Furthermore, both federal and state law requires the posting of certain information related to civil rights claims in common areas for employees. It would be appropriate to repeat the information found in those postings in your ethics policy.
Confidential Information. Policies protecting your company's confidential and trade secret information help protect valuable business assets, including intellectual property developed by you, customer lists, pricing information, unique marketing strategy, and other properties not generally known to the public that make your company successful. Most employers entrust employees with proprietary information. In order to protect your property and prevent it from being received by your competitors, you should have a nondisclosure agreement, separate from your other ethics policies, signed by each of your employees who are provided access to your protected company information. Having such an agreement not only prevents an employee from revealing that information to a future employer, but it also prevents the new employer from using any of the information without subjecting itself to possible civil liability.
Other Ethics Policies. Depending on how elaborate you want to make your policy, there are several areas that also fall under the rubric of ethics. You can institute a drug testing policy and outline the circumstances that would call for such testing. Many employers develop policies prohibiting employees from misuse of communication systems (including computers), as well as limiting access to the Internet for purposes other than as required by their work. Some employers have also developed policies prohibiting their employees from carrying concealed weapons during the course of their employment. Again, as an employer, you have the ability to be very specific in terms of the expectations of your employees and it is up to you to decide how far reaching your ethics policies should be to protect your business interests, while at the same time respecting your employees' individual rights.
While carefully written and implemented ethics policies will not make your company invulnerable to ethics-related lawsuits, such policies will hopefully reduce instances in which employees feel they are being unfairly treated without an avenue of redress to their employer. Ethics policies will also provide significant protection to your company in the event claims regarding unethical behavior are brought against your company and corporate management.
If you have ethics policies that have been in place for a number of years, be sure to have them periodically updated by your local counsel as state laws continue to develop and change in this field. If you have no ethics policies instated in your place of work, you should consult with your attorney to prepare a program appropriate for your company. The development of a basic company handbook or set of ethics policies is relatively inexpensive and you may be pleasantly surprised to find that your employees will welcome receipt of the policies, knowing that they are being provided to them for their protection.