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When we think of ethical decision making, we tend to think of this dimension on a macro level; e.g., ‘going green,’ ‘social responsibility,’ and ‘stockholder interests.’ Behaving in an ethical fashion however involves diligence in your daily interactions with each and every person you encounter.  

I’m currently reading a terrific book entitled The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What you Can do about it. In their book the authors quantify how an uncivil interaction can impact business in terms of lost time worrying about the incident, talking about it to other people, and possible health manifestations which can increase insurance costs. They explain that incivility is an epidemic in that we as a society seem to have become ruder in our daily interactions, with these occurrences carrying a ripple effect throughout the organization. Pearson and Porath (2009) define workplace incivility as the following: “the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct.”  

Spillover effects suggest that problematic behavior at work (unaddressed) can impact familial interaction and social ties. It is therefore imperative that we as managers, employees, and peers practice circumspection in our daily interactions, and that we have the courage to confront poor behavior (or at the very least come to the aid of someone who has been bulldozed). Bad behavior continues in the absence of pushback, and in the wake of individuals who are willing to tolerate bullying to avoid becoming victims themselves. Ethics is about your daily interactions on a consistent basis, in a manner that honors other people.  

As a supervisor, your ethical mandates are the following:   

  1. Handle your own business. Employees are not pawns in your game of get even with other people. Settle your turf wars on your own time, and on your own terms. Your “flunkie” will invariably look bad when the situation backfires or goes south.
  2. Create a safe space. Workers deprived of voice remain in chrysalis form – they are unable to spread their wings, and to operate as independent beings. If the only time you communicate with someone is when you want to micromanage, humiliate, or mentally abuse that person, he/she remains will bound and gagged by an excessive degree of managerial control. In the absence of free expression workers feel suffocated. Tear down the barricade of self-manifested importance between you and your employees. If their #1 priority is to avoid being reprimanded (or if their primary concern throughout the day is being upbraided) then there are some serious problems within your workplace. Bridge the chasm of silence. As Pearson and Porath note: “When such outlets [for free expression] don’t exist, organizations lose opportunities to improve, and targets lose opportunities to vent or make suggestions for improvement. This can cause unhappy workers to leave…”
  3. Intervene. Have the courage to step out of your comfort zone to confront the bully head on. Issues of interpersonal abuse must be explored before true and lasting change can occur. Avoidance and non-action are strategies for those practicing managerial nonchalance, and laissez-faire toward the loudest voices. Intervention will necessitate you as a manager being proactive.
  4. Don’t punish the victim. Moving the victim out of harm’s way (or worse, holding them accountable for others’ poor behavior) merely sends the message that the perpetrators are the most important ones.
  5. Avoid putting someone in a bad situation. Individuals who are lower in rank, lesser in seniority, or deprived of a power base are at the mercy of most others. Instructing them to deliver a politically sensitive message to a large audience is probably not in their best interests.
  6. Set the example. “Be the change you want to see.” In other words, behave in an impeccable fashion. Jack Canfield says this best when describing his speech: “What you say to others creates a ripple effect in the world…Successful people speak words of inclusion rather than words of separation, words of acceptance rather than words of rejection, and words of tolerance rather than words of prejudice…Make it the intention of every interaction with others that you uplift them in some small way.”
  7. Remove barricades. Don’t appear unapproachable to those who depend on you for protection. Ways to ensure unhappiness at work include:
    • doggedly insisting on telling people what they need to be doing;
    • surreptitiously monitoring their efforts and chastising them in writing for any minor infraction;
    • making rules and policies more important than the people they govern, and rigidly applying these to everyone except your trusted confidants;
    • allowing lower level employees to be humiliated by those higher in rank;
    • keeping secrets from people so that everyone knows who holds the cards;
    • rewarding people for keeping their mouths shut; and
    • ignoring performance in place of promotional systems that reward longevity and political behavior. 



Canfield, J. (2005). The success principles: How to get from where you are to where you want to be. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.   

Pearson, C., & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it. New York: Penguin Group.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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