Immoral Behaviour in the WorkplaceTuesday, April 12th, 2011
Immoral behaviour embraces a broad range of activities and has a broad range of interpretations because, what one person may consider an improper act, another may consider freedom of expression. Two people each may have a strict code of morality, yet these codes may differ greatly in content. One of these people may consider that divorce is unacceptable since the couple vowed to stay together for life. The other may consider it wrong for a couple to stay together if they make each other miserable. This is fascinating territory for a moral philosopher, but in the workplace we need to recognise that, whilst there are various standards of morality, the employer’s concern is to maintain a harmonious and law-abiding workforce. The employer may, of course, set some moral standards, for example by including in the rule book bans on the consumption of alcohol, use of bad language, presents from suppliers and extravagant expenses, but these really are aimed at maintenance of an efficient workforce. The employer therefore may have to explain to its employees that its interest is concerned with people’s behaviour as it affects work, and in no other way.
A common problem that employers are asked to deal with is affairs between members of staff that the complainer, and indeed many colleagues, feel are improper. For example a complaint may be made that a colleague is conducting an extra-marital affair, has affairs with a string of people or has a relationship with an inappropriate person, such as someone much younger. In such cases the employer first must consider whether or not the relationship impinges on the working environment in any practical way. If only one of the two parties is an employee, the likelihood is small unless, for example the employer is a religious organisation, but even then great care and legal advice should be taken before acting.
If the relationship is outside work, there probably is little that the employer should do unless, for example, several members of staff are friendly with the partner of an erring employee, in which case the employer might point out the problem to the employee with a strong but friendly suggestion that he or she do something to resolve the issue such as tell the spouse, bring the affair to a conclusion or seek couple counselling. Certainly there is no justification for any form of disciplinary action. If complaints continue, the employer really can do nothing other than point out that it cannot interfere in personal matters – and perhaps neither can or should the complainants.
An affair between two employees, conducted discreetly with no effect on work or on necessary working relationships, should be ignored, and again, any employees who complain should be told that it is no valid concern of theirs or of the employer. However if working arrangements are affected, then the employer should act. This might be the case if, for example, a senior executive has an affair with a member of staff over whom he or she has some control. Even though the executive may have the good sense to ensure that the partner in the affair is treated no better than other staff in similar positions, nevertheless suspicions are likely to develop to the contrary. This may well be unfair to the partners, but it is a reasonable human suspicion, therefore the employer needs to act. Similarly the employer would need to act if one of the parties were vulnerable, for example was young or had learning difficulty.
The employer should talk to both partners, collectively or separately as appropriate, and explain the problem. The employer should not demand an end to the affair, but rather require the couple to either end the relationship or be separated within the organisation. If the couple continue the relationship, the employer would be entitled to move one of them into another suitable position, the choice of employee being whichever is the easier to redeploy. And if either the employee refuses to accept alternative work or nothing suitable can be found, the employer would be entitled to dismiss. The employer would have to argue in law, if challenged, that both employees had been consulted and that a reasonable length of time had been taken to try to find suitable alternative employment. Not all close relationships that develop between colleagues are immoral of course; an executive and secretary may fall in love and decide to marry or live together in a stable relationship. Nevertheless the same issues of favouritism are likely to arise, therefore the employer would be wise to suggest that they be separated such that neither has management control over the other.
Prompt action should be taken to deal with the partners in a relationship who waste time by, for example, meeting during working hours, going out of their way to speak to each other, or not being available when needed. This should be treated as misconduct. They should be counselled in order to have them recognise their adverse impact on work, but if that does not work, then the organisation’s discipline procedure should be applied.
An employer faced with an issue of moral behaviour should consider its effect on the organisation and take reasonable necessary action to remove any adverse impact. Wherever possible the employer should counsel the people concerned before considering either redeploying or disciplining them. Pressure from other employees to take punitive action should be resisted strongly, though consideration should be given to any major discomfort likely to be felt by individuals because, for example, their social relationship with third parties is affected.
Morality is a dynamic concept and the employer needs to recognise that there are likely to be quite differing standards within the workforce. Generally, however, managers need to act solely in order to maintain an efficient and harmonious workforce and not to support any particular code of moral behaviour.