Unethical behavior in the workplace has been a hot button topic for the first decade of the 2000s. From scandals like Enron and WorldCom, to the subprime mortgage crisis, Toyota and Goldman Sachs, corporate America has seen its ethical dirty linen aired for all to see. This breeds an air of mistrust and cynicism in Americans that permeates to the workplace and has an effect on employee morale.
Employee morale is based not on how employees are performing, but how they feel about their performance and their role in the workplace. The employees’ perception of their company, its products, their individual contributions and their value as employees fuels this perception. If they work for a losing company, produce an inferior product or service, feel they do not contribute much or that they are unappreciated, employees do not feel positive about their roles and have correspondingly low morale.
Employee morale is subjective, since it is perception-based. While low or high morale can be widespread among a staff, it is not universal. No matter what an employer does, there will always be unhappy employees, as well as workers who never let anything tarnish their attitude. With that said, perceptions can be changed even when reality cannot, so increasing employee morale is achievable with a concerted effort.
Unethical behavior on the part of the company and its management creates a situation where employees feel ashamed or embarrassed by their company, its product or service, or their role in it. It is as if they are doing something wrong by association. These feelings breed mistrust and low morale. Unethical behavior by fellow employees, especially if it goes unpunished or is condoned by management, prevents cooperation and trust among employees, which also creates low morale. This negative effect is magnified if the unethical behavior by the company or employees results in harm to others.
Low morale and unethical behavior develop into a vicious cycle. Bad behavior and the mistrust it fosters create low morale and a feeling of isolation. Isolation breeds a feeling of “everyone’s only out for themselves,” leading to a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Once that attitude develops, minor ethical lapses occur, such as abusing sick time, taking small company property, fudging figures and cutting corners. On an individual basis, these actions may not have a huge effect; but when a sizable portion of a company commits them, the effect can be drastic. This culture of ethical bankruptcy present in a company affects public and employee perception, which leads to low morale.
The longer this cycle continues, the harder it is to break. However, changes can be made to break the cycle. A firm and unwavering push for company-wide ethical behavior, with third-party oversight and accountability, helps immensely. The selection of, and commitment to, a company vision and mission statement provides clarity and a sense of purpose. A top down modeling of ethical behavior and a desire to serve reinforces that commitment, coupled with the expectation that all employees will follow in those footsteps or suffer consequences. Finally, there has to be consistent enforcement of those expectations for all employees at all levels.