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Educate Entry-Level Workers on Workplace Ethics

A woman is giving a presentation to a group of people.

​Laura is a customer care manager at a call center that hires primarily entry-level workers. She's challenged by waves of new employees who seem to take the work for granted or don't appear to have a solid grounding in ethical behavior. She wants to teach new workers about the organization's code of conduct and create a better appreciation for career management and professional development. Further, she needs to establish expectations to ensure that she minimizes turnover and develops employees with high potential.

"As with all things having to do with successful leadership, communication and team building, it's the little things you do that count," said Eve Nasby, CEO of Infused.Work in the greater San Diego area. "Whether you're hiring recent high school or college graduates or other entry-level workers, make time to teach them what they may not have learned in school: the ethical rules of the road in business." 

Far too many young adults enter the workforce without these lessons, only to find themselves on the sharp end of the investigation spear and terminated for cause—not realizing why until it is too late.

Raise expectations by heightening awareness early on and engaging your earlier-career workers in all matters relating to career management and workplace ethics. Teach them life lessons when they join your organization—arguably their first encounter with a full-time job and the sometimes-harsh realities of the workplace.

"More important, steer them clear of mistaken assumptions that may land them in hot water for failing to understand that school and workplace expectations can differ significantly," Nasby said.

Mistaken Assumption No. 1: "If I mess up, the company has to give me written notice before they can fire me, right?"

Wrong! In most states, new hires are hired at will, meaning that a company can terminate them without cause or notice. Further, most organizations have introductory periods, otherwise known as probationary periods, which allow them to quickly terminate a new hire if that person isn't meeting performance or conduct standards. In fact, even if you're hired into a union job, most collective bargaining agreements give employers full latitude to terminate within the probationary period (typically 60 to 90 days). So you're not entitled to some form of documented corrective action or a second chance before a company can pull the plug on your employment.

Mistaken Assumption No. 2: Companies treat performance problems the same way they treat conduct problems.

Wrong again! Performance and conduct challenges are typically handled in a totally different manner in most organizations. When you think of "progressive discipline" (also known as corrective action) in the form of verbal, written and final written warnings, you're usually thinking of performance or attendance problems. However, conduct or behavior-based infractions often warrant summary dismissal—i.e., immediate termination—even for a first offense.

It's easy enough to understand why a company would terminate someone outright for theft, embezzlement, fraud and the like, but employees don't realize that there are other types of infractions that typically result in immediate dismissal as well. For example, timecard fraud, employment application falsification, and harassing or bullying behavior can result in immediate discharge for cause, depending on the facts and the company's history of dealing with similar matters. After all, employers don't have much wiggle room to not terminate in cases like these. Specifically, it could be difficult for a company to terminate one employee but then later argue that it shouldn't terminate another employee for the same offense.

Here's the lesson: Companies terminate swiftly and consistently when it comes to ethics breaches and dishonesty. Conduct and behavior-related infractions provide companies the discretion to skip the documenting stage of corrective action and escalate immediately to the termination stage. And the downside for new hires, of course, is twofold: They'll have lost their current job, and they'll have a much more difficult time during an interview when they're asked why they left their previous company. ("I was terminated for cause due to an ethical breach and violation of the company's code of conduct" isn't a great lead-in when you're interviewing with a hiring manager.)

Mistaken Assumption No. 3: No one's watching.

People observe you more than you realize. That means you have a greater influence on others than you know. How do you know that's so? "When people come up to you years later and thank you for influencing their careers in ways you never knew, you begin to realize just how much you touch others' lives," said Sandi Malmquist, HR director at Gothic Landscape in Valencia, Calif. "That's just how the world is designed, and that's always where your greatest opportunities lie."

People are watching you― that's not some Orwellian concept to make you nervous or paranoid. Instead, advised Malmquist, "It's a grand insight and understanding about how important you are to everyone around you, both in the workplace and in your life overall."  If you really want to get ahead in your career, study your company's code of conduct and follow these three very simple rules:

  1. Honesty is always your best policy. Your reputation is the coin of the business realm, so develop a reputation for reliability, transparency and consistency.  
  2. Create and sustain a friendly and inclusive work environment where your peers can do their best work every day. In everything you do, go out of your way to provide outstanding customer service and show that you care. People respect competence, but they love working with someone who makes them feel appreciated and recognized.
  3. Understand when you have an obligation to disclose a problem or a potential conflict of interest. Simply put, the company comes first. Always speak with your supervisor when in doubt to protect yourself and the organization.

These are the three simple rules Laura needs to teach her new employees. These rules encompass what it takes to catapult your career over time. You'll make new friends and strong networking contacts. You'll gain exposure to opportunities you otherwise would not have known about. And you'll have fun doing it. Be the role model for others to follow. Go that extra mile to help. Then let your strategy pay off over time. Your work offers you the chance to define and rebrand yourself and give back to others—after all, that's why you were hired in the first place.

Paul Falcone ( is vice president of HR at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif. Some of his best-selling books include 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.


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