Many of us can relate to today’s reader note about ethics. What do you do when you discover that someone has stolen one of your ideas and made it their own?
Can you write a blog post on intellectual integrity and ethics? I recently became aware of a situation where a senior leader in a position of trust overheard and borrowed someone’s idea and passed it off as their own. The leader also rushed to get it out before the other person could say anything.
What type of person does this? Is this becoming more common? How should the person who created the concept respond? I believe it’s reprehensible and primarily speaks to the flawed unethical character of the senior leader.
I don’t want to take anything away from this reader’s note. We all realize that there might be pieces of the story we just don’t have. But this note is a great reminder about ethics and the need for us to demonstrate ethical behavior in the workplace.
Defining Workplace Ethics
Ethics is defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity”. Ethical behavior is a part of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) competency model. Many other professional organizations include professional ethics in their code of conduct. I think it’s safe to say that, in the workplace, others expect us to act ethically.
If you look at the ethics statements of several professional organizations, you’ll find that there are common themes to ethical behavior in terms of being truthful and not having any conflicts of interest. But there are also differences. Which makes me wonder (or assume) that ethics can vary from organization to organization. And, that they can also evolve over time.
It’s also possible that organizations might choose to have ethical guidelines that are stricter than industry or societal norms. An example would be accepting gifts. In some organizations, accepting any kind of gift, regardless of price, is considered inappropriate (or unethical). Other organizations set an amount of $25 or $50. Other organizations are fine with a different dollar amount. None of them are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s the ethical standard that the company has set.
Ethical behavior has a direct connection to credibility. If individuals adhere to the ethical standard, they are viewed as being credible in the organization. That being said, I can see situations where someone is following the ethical standard and maybe the tone of their messaging is particularly abrasive. We have to be careful not to label that person as being unethical when the reality is that they’re just being a jerk.
Creating an Ethical Company Culture
Organizations that place a value on ethics can do several things to create and maintain an ethical culture.
Create an ethics statement. Think about the ethical behavior that you expect of others and craft some sort of statement that tells people who do business with your organization what they can expect. The statement can be posted on your company website for candidates, customers, and employees to see.
Include ethics in employee communications. If your employee handbook doesn’t include ethics, it probably should. Talk about ethics in new hire orientation and onboarding. Ethics shouldn’t just be an “HR thing”, it should be a company value. Make sure that managers are comfortable talking about ethical behavior as well.
Record senior management talking about ethics. Speaking of employee communications, look for an opportunity to shoot short videos of senior management speaking about ethics. The videos don’t need to be high-production quality, in fact, it might be better if they look / feel more casual. Ethics should be viewed as something that is discussed regularly.
Ask employees about ethics. Consider adding a question to your regular pulse surveys or annual employee engagement surveys about ethics. Make it a benchmarking question so the organization can notice trends over time. Do employees regularly rate the company as being ethical? Or does the company see their scores heading up/down?
Hold everyone accountable.It’s great to have the first four things but they will be in jeopardy if employees aren’t held accountability. And accountability needs to happen at every level in the organization. Talking about ethics is important – but it alone is not enough.
How to Respond to Unethical Behavior
So, what should an employee do if they feel their ideas have been stolen by someone else? Well, I believe the employee needs to ask themselves a few questions, starting with “Is this worth it?” And what I mean by that, is the idea worth confronting someone over? I’ve had my ideas taken and know the sting that it creates. But many of the ideas weren’t worth getting upset about.
And in the situations where having the idea being labeled as mine was important, I would have a second decision to make. Should I speak with my manager or human resources? Or have a conversation with the person. If it were a serious matter, I’d take it to HR or my manager. A less serious situation, I would speak with the person directly. I would tell them that having a good working relationship was important to me and ask what happened. Sometimes the individual had a perfectly logical response. Sometimes they didn’t.
Which leads to the last point…
If you find out that a person has taken credit for one of your ideas, the company isn’t willing to help, AND the person can’t explain why, THEN you’ve got to decide if you want to work for a manager or a company that you feel has done something unethical. Honestly, I can’t answer that question for you. It’s a very emotional and difficult decision. Especially if you really enjoy the work you do, your compensation and benefits, and like the other people you work with (who act in an ethical fashion).
Have you ever had someone take credit for your ideas? What did you do? Leave us a note in the comments.6