Workplace values must be valued – by all

Jun 17 2008 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

When we go to work each day, each of us participates in a unique workplace community where we share common values with others while accomplishing certain goals. So why is it some people insist on criticizing others when those people are trying to uphold community standards?

Before I continue, let's look closer at the word "community." It comes from the Latin word communis, which means "common, public, shared by all or many." And communis is also the root for the English words commerce, communication, committee, and commitment.

We have business communities, virtual communities, and an international community.

In the workplace, corporate values set the tone for what kind of community we strive to have there. And frankly, I don't know of any employer who creates a list of values in which people are to be criticized for trying to do things right.

Yet criticizing people who adhere to a code of ethical, moral behavior seems to occur more often than most of us would like to admit.

Consider Calvin, a father of four who works nights at regional distribution center. When one of his co-workers was viewing "inappropriate material" on the Internet at work, Calvin struggled with what to do. He knew such behavior was against company policy, and he also knew this co-worker had recently gotten married.

If he followed company policy to the letter, Calvin could have written up his coworker via formal channels. But rather than put a permanent and embarrassing black mark on this man's record, Calvin tried an indirect route. He causally mentioned that it was against company policy to be viewing such material on company computers.

Suffice to say Calvin's coworker did not take kindly to the indirect nudge. In fact, he blasted Calvin for being nosy and he started a character assassination campaign against him. Before long, Calvin was being made the butt of jokes and was ostracized by many of his coworkers – sometimes by his own boss.

All of this hit Calvin out of left field. In the months that followed, Calvin said he felt he was being treated as a leper. His sense of commitment to the work community waned. Rather than get up each day and look forward to going to work, he dreaded it. As I mentioned, this type of scenario is probably more common than we'd like to admit. Maybe you've been a victim in a similar circumstance, or maybe you've even participated with the crowd against someone like Calvin.

At question here, really, is the true value of your company value statement, as well as the character of your work community. In order for values to be more than just a statement framed and hanging on a wall, they must be modeled and enforced.

When Calvin shared this story with me I was surprised to hear that his boss was participating in the attacks. The circumstances were such that his boss was new, and was unaware of Calvin's long history of being a valuable employee.

Whether the new boss was taking the wrong road in an effort to be accepted or was just ignorant of a manager's responsibilities, there's really no excuse. A manager ought to know better.

In other words, if managers and leaders will not model the expected behaviors for the workplace community, its unlikely the rest of the employees will have any regard for community standards, either.

Of course, some, like Calvin, will want to do the right thing no matter what. But some won't. And just like in any community, if rules aren't enforced, the environment tends to deteriorate to the least common denominator.

If you find yourself in Calvin's position, I have two suggestions. First, document everything that happened, but be objective. Leave all assumptions and descriptions of feelings out of the writing.

Second, be professional and call the situation for what it is. In Calvin's case he can go directly to his supervisor with his documentation. If he gets no resolution, he can go to HR. This is not to threaten anyone, but rather be steadfast in sticking to principles.

Bottom line, a company's value statement needs to be more than just well-chosen words. If the company, and that includes the managers, will not abide by and enforce ethical principles, then like any other community without rules, expect the workplace to deteriorate.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence

Older Comments

This is a great story, and I agree with your suggestions. I work at a nonprofit, Winning Workplaces, that helps small and midsized firms create better work environments, and translating values from the few lines on paper to consistent daily use (not abuse) by employees at all levels, starting from the top, is a consistent theme we see.

It seems like Calvin's story can be avoided if firms:

1. Allow for the rules in the employee manual, but know when to bend or break them, and, more importantly, 2. Have consistent practice of those core values by the leadership, starting with hiring and implementation. You'd be amazed how getting a person who lives and breathes by the same values the leadership has can make the difference between incidences like these happening or not.

I was reminded how powerful this latter notion is when I interviewed the president of Southwest Airlines yesterday, Colleen Barrett, for an upcoming article in our newsletter. She said she was able to get the same core principles up and running at their 63 satellite locations by going above and beyond when it came to instilling them in the top level at each location. Then, she said, corporate could in a sense step back and let those people live those values. In part, it's what has helped separate SW's treatment of customers from other major airlines -- which has translated to the bottom line in more satisfied, repeat customers and better stock performance than United and AA, among others.

Mark Chicago, IL, USA

Great article, and a caveat to us all. It's easy to go to your boss when a co-worker is committing egregious/overt mistakes at work. Calvin made the tougher move of trying to deal with a tricky situation in person before going over his colleague's head. What's important to remember about this situation is that the colleague put Calvin and his colleagues in said tough position but looking at inappropriate material at work. While he shouldn't necessarily be ostracized for his behavior, he certainly shouldn't be supported by his inner circle to the detriment of Calvin.

When an organization has a code of conduct or principles everyone adheres to, flaunting the fact that you think they're ridiculous puts the character of your office in question. If you think certain behavior should be allowed (tacitly or overtly), then write that down. If there is stuff you know is going on you could never put in a formal code, talk to the people engaging in the behavior and let them know not to do it any longer at work. It's not rocket science--surfing inappropriate material (aka pornography) should not be sanctioned officially or unofficially, especially by a manager/boss.

I read Calvin's story and am also disturbed by how the colleague engaging in inappropriate behavior exhibited such bully tendencies and nobody called him on it. Whether his colleagues thought Calvin prudish or lame, it's interesting/saddening that nobody gave him credit for not going to his boss where the colleague would have gotten a note on his permanent record. Nobody gave him credit for the fact that Calvin may have confronted behavior that a different worker would have brought to the boss' attention in a formal manner and possibly gotten the offending worker fired.

Bullies suck, plain and simple. When they cover their embarrassment with defensive behavior that alienates a good worker trying to do the right thing they're also insidious to the workplace. Supporting them over people like Calvin reflects a larger problem for any code of ethics than a basic tenet to not surf inappropriate material at work.

John C. Havens VP, Business Development BlogTalkRadio Co-Author, 'Tactical Transparency'

John C. Havens