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Practical Application: Recognizing the Difference Between Workplace Ethics & the Law

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Every day we face ethical dilemmas. Sometimes they also have legal consequences. Apply your understanding of the difference between ethics and the law and what this means for our workplace behavior using different scenarios.

The Grey Area

In the lesson The Difference Between Workplace Ethics and the Law we learned that ethics are what we think is right or wrong based on our own beliefs and those of society. Laws, on the other hand, are rules set by governments. They dictate what we can and cannot do. There are negative consequences for breaking them. And, they apply to everyone.

There is grey area though, when something is unethical based on some beliefs, but there is no law against it. For example, office gossip in general is not against the law. The content of the gossip determines its legality. False accusations of criminal activity are illegal. Giving insider information on stock prices via gossip is illegal.

Ethical or Legal or Both?

When situations arise in the workplace, there are certain questions to ask to determine if it is ethical or legal or both.

Question to consider Ethical Legal Both
Is there guidance that is published? X
Is the guidance universal? X
Is the guidance enforced? X
Are there clear negative consequences? X
Are there multiple choices or outcomes? X
Is the choice either-or? X
Can anyone change the guidance? X
Can only governments change the guidance? X

Three Scenarios

With these questions in mind, consider these scenarios.

  • The Missing Office Supplies

The office manager at ACME Accounting noticed that one department uses more office supplies than other groups. He determines that Jerry regularly takes home packages of copy paper and boxes of pens and pencils. Jerry states that he does not see anything wrong with it because everyone takes home office supplies and there is no policy against it.

The office manager tells Jerry that he needs to stop this practice and also sends a memo to all staff reminding them that office supplies are company property. Was Jerry acting ethically when he took the office supplies home since there was no company policy against it? Was it legal?

  • Whose Time is it Anyway?

With the holiday season in full swing, finding time to shop is a challenge. At ACME Accounting, every employee receives a certain number of sick days each year so they do not have to use vacation time when they or a family member falls ill. Employees call the office when they are sick and fill out a time sheet for the sick time on their return.

Shelly has used all of her vacation days, so sh calls in sick for two days so she can go Christmas shopping. She has not used any sick days this year. Is Shelly acting ethically when she used two sick days to go shopping? Is it legal, as the sick days are for a specific purpose?

  • The Computer Challenge

Jason works in the sales department at ACME Accounting. He is also working on starting his own business when he passes his CPA exam. He often stays late at the office, spending time after the company closes working on his marketing plan on his company computer. He stores the files in a personal folder on the desktop.

Is it ethical for Jason to use his workplace computer for personal work outside of office hours? Is it legal?

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