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Career Doctor: How do you know if you are behaving ethically?

By Peter Cullen FIML


Whilst facilitating, I often see a lot of blank faces when I ask the question ‘How do you know if you are behaving ethically in your workplace?’

These blank faces reflect the fact that ethical behaviour is not promoted or alive in many workplaces. This can expose organisations to all kinds of problems, leading to legal ramifications or worse. The intentional disregard for ethics by some led to the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry whose findings rocked the sector and shocked people from all walks of life across Australia.



Ethics is a very broad subject. In Australia alone, there are more than 20 bachelor’s degrees offered in the subject. One of the many topics covered in a degree is business ethics. This represents the practices that any individual or group exhibits within an organisation that can positively or negatively affect the business’s core values. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and entire organisations.

There is also the question of morals when discussing ethics. Morals refer to an individual’s personal principles regarding what is right and what is wrong. It is very easy for a person’s personal principles to guide their behaviour rather than adhering to business ethics. There can also be personal conflict between the two, making some situations even more difficult for individuals.



Unethical behaviour by leaders can lead to catastrophic outcomes for an organisation. Widespread and continuous unethical behaviour by staff can cause untold damage to culture and reputation.

The downfall of Enron in 2001 is a classic example. It led to the imprisonment of several of its senior leadership group and destroyed one of the world’s largest audit firms Arthur Andersen. Charges laid on the senior leaders included manipulating accounting rules, money laundering, bank fraud, insider trading and conspiracy.



A quick question: Do you know your organisation’s core values, code of conduct, policies, procedures, processes and systems and do you live them in your workplace?

If you do, congratulations. If you don’t or are unsure, you have some work to do because those values probably define the ethical expectations in your workplace. In addition to the values, there is also legislation such as the Fair Work Act, Work Health and Safety Act and others. A great place to start if you are unsure about any of these is to speak to your human resources team.

There are many benefits when all employees from top to bottom are behaving ethically. They include trust, honesty, integrity, transparency, consistency, fairness, improved decision making, productivity and many more. Ethical behaviour creates an environment where people feel safe to speak up and challenge unethical behaviour knowing they are supported by the organisation.

Every person in every organisation – whether large or small – is responsible for behaving ethically in the workplace. Leaders are role models and must lead the way with ethical behaviour. People will observe their leaders’ behaviours and whatever they do becomes permissible for others.

Become a role model for others by embracing and living ethics in the workplace.


Peter Cullen is an education and training facilitator. He conducts three-day programs that engage participants in developing and implementing their capabilities as managers and leaders.


This article originally appeared in the September 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s quarterly magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact


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