Integrity in the Workplace

Sticky Issue: Integrity in the Workplace

One of the most difficult issues to identify and discuss is “Integrity in the Work Place.” First of all it is important to identify what is meant by integrity, and second, does it apply to the workplace? Third, who does it apply to, and how are issues of integrity dealt with in the context of several different relationships: employer – employee; supervisor – supervisee; volunteer leader – professional staff member; and employee – employee; volunteer – employee and volunteer – volunteer? In each of these situations it is essential for there to be a clear understanding of the issue(s) and a well thought out approach to deal with the lack of integrity in anyone of these relationships.

In order for us to establish a common use of the word, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines integrity as “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty and sincerity.” In the context of working in the voluntary sector for non-profit organizations either as a volunteer or staff member, there are professional codes of ethics that apply to a number of professions represented by staff members; including teachers, social workers, nurses, doctors, dieticians, accountants, lawyers, and therapists from various fields. Volunteers who serve on boards of directors have to agree to a code of ethics and/or other statement reflecting the values of the specific organization. Unfortunately, there are occurrences when either staff members or volunteers do not adhere to the ethics they have agreed to uphold.

In terms of professional relationships the lack of integrity can manifest itself when either one or both of the professionals, either on the same administrative level or on different levels within the agency hierarchy are less than honest with each other in a discussion. It is necessary to distinguish between a misunderstanding or a difference of opinion and a lack of honesty when discussing these incidents within an organization. The question of integrity arises when it is not an issue of two different opinions but rather an intentional distortion of the situation by one of the parties in the relationship.

This occurs when one of the parties is motivated to impose him/herself on the other and feels there is little recourse other than to distort the situation. When it is carried out on a conscious level then it is clearly a lack of integrity as opposed to someone who is doing it unconsciously. In the former situation there is a possibility of dealing with it, however, in the later case, the behavior may be described as pathological. If this is the case, then there will probably be other occurrences that can be documented and it may be appropriate to encourage the person to receive professional counseling or treatment.

In other cases, a lack of integrity can manifest itself in the interactions caused by petty differences; jealousy; competition between and among people; personality conflicts; lack of professional respect; and other dynamics that are not necessarily identifiable or measurable. The issue is accented by the lack of integrity displayed by a staff member or volunteer who is in a superior position over other people. What distinguishes disrespectful behavior caused by a lack of integrity from inappropriate behavior is the ability to document the specific actions of a professional or lay leader. The more detailed the employer, supervisor or lay leader can be in identifying problematic behavior, the less likelihood there is of the accusation being made that the person is displaying a lack of integrity in the way either party in the relationship is being spoken to or is being dealt with.

What to do when someone is being unethical or is behaving in a questionable or inappropriate way is a difficult challenge for most organizations. There is a need for a policy and practical guidelines for dealing with these situations within the organization. When someone seems to be on the boundary line between what is preferred behavior and what is unethical it is imperative to document the specific actions that are observed. In an appropriate setting the supervisor should confront the staff member and clarify the agency’s policy toward the observed actions.

In cases where the person displaying a lack of integrity is in a superior position this becomes more complicated. A number of non-profits have developed a “whistleblower” policy where by an employee can approach a person in the organization who wants to know when there is a lack of honesty or integrity displayed by professionals or lay leaders. The identified person will investigate all reported incidents without divulging the source and the staff person who came forward will be protected from any reprisals by any of the superiors in the organization. Obviously, the person entrusted with this responsibility has to be a person with great integrity who is respected for both his professional and personal ethics.

Even given the existence of a “whistleblower” policy, non-profits can fall victim to perpetrating a lack of integrity by allowing people to mistreat others and to display behaviors that are both unethical and unbecoming of human service organizations. It takes the highest commitment to both the ethics of the profession the agency is identified with as well as the ethics guiding the professionals in the non-profit to not only articulate clearly the highest ethical values but also to speak out against the lack of integrity displayed by employees and to implement policies reflecting these values.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.