We’re all basically good people, right? We go to work, do a good job, spend time with our families, and engage in our communities. Sure, we vent to our co-workers about the weird guy in the next cubicle, complain about our bosses, tell little white lies so we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, and bring home the occasional stack of sticky notes, but everybody does that, right? That’s just how it is. No harm, no foul.
Not so much.
What was once called unethical is held by many today as a social norm. In fact, Gwendolyn Kelly wrote in Ways to Minimize Unethical Behavior by Employees that “unethical behavior has become the norm” (2018 Doctoral Dissertation). Is this the ethical version of jumping off the bridge because everyone else is doing it? Many people believe the majority is always right, however, Pastor Rick Warren is known for stating, “A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good, just because it’s accepted by a majority.”
A simple definition of ethics comes from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary - “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.” Ethical study begs the questions what should I do and how should I be (Fedler, 2006)? Ethics are important because ethical behavior is necessary for the healthy functioning of society. Nearly every society agrees that lying and stealing are unethical behaviors. However, 73% of American employees have witnessed workplace misconduct such as wasting time, using company supplies for personal use, and property theft (Henle, Reeve, and Pitts, 2010). Damage from unethical employee behavior is significant. As a leader in your organization, you can stem this tide of destruction by identifying the top toxic categories of people in the workplace and putting systems in place to counteract unethical behaviors.
Top Toxic Categories of People in the Workplace Gossips
Did you hear about …?
This is how much of the grapevine is planted and grown. Someone plants the conversation seed. Perhaps they are bored, don’t know what else to talk about, want to make an impression, or get in good with someone. It is usually pretty innocent at first. But maybe they want to spread a rumor to get back at someone or take the attention off of themselves. Some researchers have discovered that when there is a lack of transparency in the workplace, employees will speculate or develop their own theories of what’s going on in the organization (Bogard and Bradley, 2018). Out of their uncertainty grows misinformation and shared fear.
Gossip about team members negatively influences team outcomes and may result in reduced feelings of psychological safety and cooperation. There are three categories of people affected by the rumor mill. First, there is the one everyone is talking about – the victim. Whether or not the rumors are true, the victim’s reputation is altered, and he loses trust in his coworkers. Beneficiaries are those who did not start the rumor, but they take advantage of the story and work it to their advantage. The third category is initiators. These are the people who started the rumor or innuendo (Casse and Ionova, 2015). At the very least, gossip is a time-waster that reduces productivity. At its worst, gossip can cost people their psychological health, reputations, and even their jobs.
Gossip will continue until people realize it has consequences. I left a job primarily for financial reasons, however, a happy benefit of leaving the organization was getting away from the rampant gossip and negativity. My new boss told me on the first day that gossip would not be tolerated and was grounds for dismissal. When I told a previous co-worker this statement, she responded that she wished management at my old job would institute the same policy. I always keep in the back of my mind that if someone is willing to talk about others to me, they are willing to talk about me to others? Gossip, even if the information is true, is detrimental to an organization because it erodes trust and leaves us suspicious of what people are saying about us. False statements are straight-up lies that hurt the innocent and their families and bring negativity to the workplace. Those who start false rumors and innuendo are mean-spirited and members or our next category of toxic workers – liars.
We’ve already looked at the repercussions of starting false rumors. We can also acknowledge obvious lying is unethical and undesirable in employees and the workplace. But what about a subtle, socially acceptable lie? That white lies are customary, even admirable, forms of communication in polite society is perhaps one of the biggest lies people believe about what it is to be “normal” in our culture. The television series Scorpion and The Big Bang Theory showcase geniuses trying to interact with mainstream society. In both shows there is a genius whisperer. Scorpion’s sage is Paige, and The Big Bang Theory’s is Penny. Both shows have dedicated screen time to Paige and Penny trying to teach their respective primary geniuses (Walter and Sheldon) how to engage in the fine art of the white lie, which they explained is an innocent little stretching of the truth people use to spare the feelings of others. The rest of both storylines show how clumsy and hurtful failed attempts at white lying can be.
White lies are just as clumsy and hurtful in the real-life workplace. The two primary reasons people tell white lies is because they are uncomfortable with conflict or they have not been coached and mentored in effectively developing truth telling skills. Perhaps the most disserving use of the white lie comes from managers during employee reviews, pass-overs for promotion, and letting an employee go. When performance issues are glossed over in any of these cases, more harm is done than good. The recipient who believes their work is acceptable doesn’t understand the veracity of the situation and is robbed of the opportunity to respond or rectify. She loses out on a valuable growth opportunity and the manager continues to suffer the effects of subpar performance. The manager also suffers if the recipient or upper management later learn the truth and change their views of the leader to one who lacks integrity.
Researchers contend employee theft has reached epidemic proportions. Their research suggests 95% of all businesses experience employee theft resulting in an estimated 52 billion dollars a year in losses (Weber, Kurke, and Pentico, 2003). Obvious forms of stealing include petty theft, misuses of company funds, selling trade secrets, and embezzlement. A zero tolerance policy including dismissal and legal prosecution are appropriate in these instances. But what about time theft? Habitual tardiness, leaving early, taking extra or longer breaks, gossiping, playing computer games, and taking care of personal business during scheduled work time is stealing from the company. On average, workers are guilty of stealing 53 minutes per day This is unethical because the employee is already compensated for this wasted time.
What’s a Leader to Do?
Ignoring gossips, liars, and thieves is not an option for those who hope to engage in successful business. As we have seen, employees engaged in these behaviors cost organizations time, money, and productivity. They change the overall culture of the organization from thriving to toxic. Toxic work environments result in apathy, absenteeism, more gossip, lies, and theft, and a high turnover rate. As a marketplace leader you can throw your hands up and claim you can’t be responsible for other people’s ethics, or you can follow this three-step process for turning the tide of unethical behavior and its consequences. Rather than trying to solve this on your own, engage other members of your leadership, form an ethics committee to help with assessments and adoptions. Engage top management. New initiatives will not succeed if top management does not have buy-in and visible involvement.
Start by asking yourself how widespread the unethical behavior is. This will help you gain a understanding of how deep the toxins have soaked into your organization. Next, ask why your employees are behaving unethically. Did you simply hire unethical people or are there other factors at play? Finally, ask what part you play in the unethical behavior. Are you setting a poor example? Are you failing to effectively communicate with your followers and creating a vacuum they are trying to fill with suppositions and theories?
The second step is to assess the ethical climate of your organization. Identify employees who exhibit dishonest or unethical behavior and either discipline or remove them. Examine structure systems, engage in an organizational culture assessment, identify management styles and their strengths and weaknesses. Identify instances that allow or encourage unethical behavior. Review policies. Identify what’s working and what’s not. Are there poorly written policies that encourage unethical behavior? Would a rewriting or a clarification in a policy rectify the situation? Does your organization need to form an ethics committee to coordinate ethics programs? Do employees have manageable workloads, clearly defined work schedules, and adequate personal time and vacation?
Once you have asked the hard questions and assessed the ethical climate of your organization, it’s time to adopt and implement your changes. Since people do not respond well to coercion strategy, change your own assumptions to believe employees naturally act ethically and implement strategies to help them act this way. Provide an ethical framework that includes the following:
Clear organizational objectives
An ethics program that contains instruments, policies, and procedures to promote ethical behavior and minimize unethical behavior (Kelly, 2018).
Company code of ethics
Ongoing ethics training
A concrete whistleblowing system
A communication plan: when employers are more open, employees won’t have to worry about sudden changes and will be better able to concentrate on their work (Bogard and Bradley, 2018).
Thousands of businesses fail annually because of losses caused by employees. This doesn’t have to be your organization’s fate. Leaders who promote a positive workplace culture of honesty by setting a personal example and implementing systems, policies, and procedures that discourage negative behavior and reward honest and ethical behavior can turn their organizations around. Shifting to a positive work environment reduces stress, raises productivity, reduces gossip, and increases trust and respect for managers. Gossip, lying, and time thieving can be deep-seated behaviors manifested in a toxic culture. While it took time to develop the bad habits and negative culture, it will take time to develop and implement processes to shift to a positive environment. Be patient. It’s worth it!
Bogard, D., & Bradley, M. J. (2018). Be HONEST. Arlington: National Recreation and Park Association.
Casse, P., & Ionova, N. (2015). The curse of the rumor mill. Training Journal, 57.
Fedler, K. D. (2006). Exploring Christian ethics: Biblical foundations for morality. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Henle, C. A., Reeve, C. L., & Pitts, V. E. (2010). Stealing time at work: Attitudes, social pressure, and perceived control as predictors of time theft. Journal of Business Ethics, 94(1), 53-67. doi:10.1007/s10551-009-0249-z
Kelly, G. (2018). Ways to minimize unethical behavior by employees.
Weber, J., Kurke, L. B., & Pentico, D. W. (2003). Why do employees steal?: Assessing differences in ethical and unethical employee behavior using ethical work climates. Business & Society, 42(3), 359-380. doi:10.1177/0007650303257301