Ethics in Employment

            Some employers call my law office to find out what they can get away with legally: what loopholes in the law can they exploit or how can they get rid of an employee without taking the usual steps of giving the employee an opportunity to cure their performance problems.

            I am much more impressed by the employers I advise regularly, almost all of whom are just trying to do the right thing by their employees while earning a decent living for themselves.

            If I didn’t have an ethical requirement to keep my clients’ identities confidential, I would love to brag on the local company that doesn’t fire a person for the first failed drug test, but instead holds their job open while the employee completes rehab and then offers the worker one more chance.

            Or I could tell you about several clients of mine who voluntarily supplement the workers’ compensation wages benefit when an employee is hurt on the job so that the employee gets 100% of his wages while recovering rather than just the 70% paid by the workers’ compensation insurance.

            Many of my clients, even in the face of skyrocketing group health insurance premiums, have chosen to keep paying 100% of their employee’s insurance costs rather than just the 50% allowed by law or rather than discontinuing group health insurance completely, telling me that as employers they refuse to let their employees face a long hospital stay or a crippling injury without adequate insurance, even if it means less profit for the company.

            Several employer clients of mine have chosen to provide healthy severance packages to long-term employees whom they had to fire because of financial setbacks to the company, even though such severance payments aren’t required by any law, just because the employer didn’t want the employee to starve while looking for a new job.

            These employers are interested in more than the legal issues surrounding their employees. They are interested in the ethics of being an employer. They have values, care and empathy for each individual employee and they treat each person in the company as they would like to be treated.

            Being an ethical employer doesn’t mean being a doormat. As in parenting, sometimes the most ethical thing you can do as an employer is apply “tough love” by disciplining a low-performing employee, even to the point of terminating the employment relationship.

But an ethical employer carefully considers several issues before taking any adverse employment action. Here are some guidelines you can think about when making one of these tough decisions:

  • Is it legal?
  • Does it comply with company rules and regulations?
  • Does it comply with your own values?
  • Have you discussed it with others whose ethics you trust (unless confidential)?
  • Have you communicated clearly with the employee about the problem and given him an opportunity to improve?
  • Is there a less drastic action worth trying?
  • Would you mind seeing your action in the newspaper?
  • Would it be okay for someone to do this to you?
  • Could you explain the “fairness” of your decision to a jury?

Another item to consider in the Panhandle of Texas is whether you will be burning bridges with your employment action. Amarillo is a very small town when it comes to people talking about who runs a good company and who does not. If you choose not treat your employees with respect and decency, it may come back to haunt you someday in terms of lost business, ill-will or capable employees avoiding applying to work for you.

A former business associate of mine used to talk about how his employees were “damn lucky to have this job” and wouldn’t consider praise, raises or rewards for his subordinates. My feeling was that eventually the only people he would be able to convince to work for him would be those who were damn lucky to have any job, not capable, competent, first-rate employees.

You can choose to be a better employer than that, not only by doing the right thing legally, but by defining your ethics and resolving to always meet or exceed those values when dealing with your employees.

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