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What Would You Do? Ethics and Today’s Administrative Professional

Ethical considerations on the job can be quite sticky.  According to the course notebook for AMA’s seminar “Partnering with Your Boss: Strategic Skills for Administrative Professionals,” “When it comes to ethics, the first thing you must decide is where your loyalties lie.  You were hired by the company, but you work for your boss(es).  You must also be true to your own values.  Your company may also focus on shareholders; the stock price has to go up.  In some industries it is also important to consider the public welfare. The question is, “to whom do you owe loyalty first?”

What constitutes ethical behavior in the workplace is not always immediately clear.  In addition to what your own conscience tells you about what’s right and wrong, you can turn to external sources to determine how to proceed in various workplace situations.  Here are some suggested resources from AMA’s seminar “Partnering with Your Boss:”
• The law of the land—If it’s not legal, it’s probably not ethical either.
• Your industry—Many industries have specific codes of ethics.
• Your company—Most companies have detailed employee handbooks that outline both acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  They should also include guidance on what steps to take in difficult situations (i.e., how and where to report ethical violations).

Case Exercise:  What Would You Do?
Think about how you would proceed if faced with the following workplace ethical dilemmas, from “Partnering with Your Boss.”  You may also want to discuss these cases with your co-workers, to get their feedback.

Case #1—The Boss’s Expense Report
Your boss conveniently loses his expense report for his last trip.  On his way into a meeting, he drops a blank report on your desk and asks you to fill in the blanks, saying, “Make it add up to $300 or so.”  What would you do?

Case #2— Lunch Reservations
Ever since you took the job last year, your boss has asked you to schedule a weekly lunch date with his mistress.  You don’t like doing it, but you’ve made the reservations anyway.  Last month you met his wife at a business luncheon.  Now that she has met you, whenever she calls and he is out, she asks, “Can you tell me where he is?”  You can’t stand being an accomplice.  What would you do?

Case #3—Dinner on the Corporate Card
A very attractive manager from another department asks you out to dinner.  You are surprised when you arrive at a restaurant with average prices of $50 a plate.  But you enjoy the meal and the conversation—especially since work doesn’t even come up.  Dessert and after-dinner coffee are added to the bill.  The big surprise comes when your date pays for everything with the company’s credit card.  What would you do?

Case #4—The Confidential Report
It is afternoon and you have just received a very bulky interoffice mail package.  As you begin sorting the contents, you discover a cover letter addressed to someone else and a folder stamped “Confidential” in big, red letters.  As you begin to put it back in the mail bag, half the contents of the folder slip out and fall all over your desk.  Since it is “Confidential,” you try not to look, but you can’t help yourself.  You discover your company is involved in the scandal of the century.  What would you do?

Case #5—Party Marty
Marty is another administrative assistant who works in your office.  Over the last two years the two of you have become great friends.  The only thing you don’t like about Marty is her cavalier attitude toward “sampling” company property, like packages of ballpoint pens and reams of paper for her home computer.  You have never said anything before, but now she has gone too far.  Yesterday, she announced that she had “borrowed” the keys to a condo at the corporate retreat.  “No one will be there this weekend,” she says, “so I’m throwing a party!  Wanna come?”  You know Marty’s boss has no idea his keys are missing and you’re uncomfortable participating in such an incriminating activity.  What would you do?

Concluding Thoughts
So, what would you do if faced with the dilemmas outlined above?  While hypothetical, the above situations certainly provide some food for thought.

Obviously, employees are more likely to act ethically when they work in a culture that supports and demands upright behavior.  When AMA conducted an ethics study with the Institute for Corporate Productivity several years ago, respondents said that the number one driver for establishing and sustaining a business ethics culture is that “Leaders support and model ethical behavior.”  So while it is the responsibility of each employee to act with the highest degree of integrity and honesty at all times, above all, ethical behavior has to start at the top.

© 2009 American Management Association. All rights reserved.

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.