Business forum: What to do when employees go rogue

  • Article by: NAN DEMARS
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 1:10 PM

To keep on the straight path, employees and their managers must rely on the organization’s moral code.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces an ethics scandal. Establishing an ethical foundation in the workplace helps both employees and managers.

Photo: Seth Wenig , Associated Press

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The drama in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office continues regarding allegations that associates of Christie sought to punish the mayor of Fort Lee by ordering the closing of lanes of traffic leading from his borough to the ­George Washington Bridge.

The situation is certainly an example of government derailed, but it is also a challenge to our view of workplace loyalty. What can we all learn from this ethical train wreck?

We don’t know whether or not Christie had established a clear-cut moral compass for his staff. Regardless, it appears as though some of them chose to go rogue.

Establishing and communicating this ethical foundation of any organization is the first step in creating the ethical workplace — followed by a ­formal code of ethics, conduct and mission statement plus ongoing ethics training. Employees need and deserve a blueprint on what is acceptable workplace behavior and what is not, and this north-star compass must start from the top.

The dark side of loyalty

But for all its virtue, loyalty has a dark side as well. In the past, the concept of workplace loyalty really meant blind loyalty, ergo unconditional, unthinking and unquestioned compliance with your boss’ requests.

When a company overemphasizes this kind of blind devotion, we have what FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley terms “groupthink.” The result is a dangerous lack of skepticism and debate, denial of reality and suspension of personal responsibility.

Those raising questions are seen as disloyal, even when they have crucial and perhaps lifesaving concerns. In this culture, you can even naively follow a charismatic leader straight over the cliff. Loyalty gone awry is betrayal at its worst.

Today’s employees recognize they are not only accountable for their own actions but accountable also for any misbehavior they may witness. They realize they are at higher risk for suffering legal, personal and professional consequences of their actions, inaction, complicity or silence.

No professional can operate with blinders on.

Commitment’s the new loyalty

Fortunately, today’s definition of loyalty has morphed into a commitment to do the right thing. This is a commitment first to your personal and professional standards, then to your company’s mission, and then to your supervisors’ mission. This can best be described by following what I call the “ethical-priority ­compass.’’

This is a simple, hierarchical approach to orient yourself to any ethical dilemma (loyalty or otherwise). If you follow these three points — in this order — you will never be lost.

1. Take care of yourself. Protect yourself from legal, ­financial, immoral and even emotional harm by not participating in any unethical behaviors. And remember, when you take care of yourself, you also protect your professional reputation as well as the standards and integrity of your particular profession.

2. Take care of your organization. Ethically, you should continually act in your company’s best interests. Remain true to your company’s code of ethics and conduct. Those pieces of paper can be your touchstones — they should leave no wiggle room for unethical behavior.

3. Take care of your boss or bosses. This is a professional relationship that merits all your skills, acumen and loyalty. But this loyalty is no longer blind or unconditional. Your boss is your professional ­partner and needs all your support and attention in maintaining an ethical workplace.

Managers and employees nowadays agree that they must view loyalty as a reciprocal commitment to help each other “do the right thing.” Both are aware of, and even hypersensitive to, their separate accountabilities, and both realize that no one gets to play the blame game anymore. Each can hold the other to higher expectations, and neither ought to expect the other to sacrifice himself. Loyalty now is something to be negotiated, not ­presumed.

Thus, there is only one way for management and employees to inoculate themselves against a loyalty crisis, and that is to start talking — now. The conversation is one that needs to take place on various levels and across groups — between bosses and employees, among management, and even at the board level.

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