Ethics and the Administrative Professional. What Would YOU Do?

Published: Nov 28, 2018
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

When AMA and Human Resource Institute recently surveyed over 1100 managers and HR experts from around the world about ethics, respondents identified “Pressure to meet unrealistic business objectives/deadlines” as the number one factor most likely to cause people to compromise ethical standards. Further down the list of reasons for unethical behavior was the “Need to follow boss’s orders.” (Note: you can access the entire study, The Ethical Enterprise: Doing the Right Things in the Right Ways, Today and Tomorrow, at

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 “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).

The International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) has created a Code of Ethics outlining the ethical obligations for administrative professionals. For example, the IAAP Code states that the administrative professional shall:

“…not reveal confidential communications or information without permission or unless continued confidentiality is harmful to the corporate employer, client, public or profession.”
“…assume responsibilities only when qualified by training and experience.”
“…refuse to cooperate with or condone by silence the actions of co-workers or employers who misuse their positions for personal, nonprofessional advantage.”

(For additional information on the IAAP’s professional Code, visit their Website at

Case Exercise: What Would You Do?
Think about how you would proceed if faced with the following workplace ethical dilemmas, from AMA’s seminar “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 will 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 will you do?

Case #3—Dinner a la 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 will 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 will 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 will you do?

Concluding Thought
Keep in mind an additional finding of the AMA/HRI ethics study—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.