Regardless of what industry you work in, it is likely you will face an ethical dilemma or workplace conflict at some point in your career. By nature, people respond to conflict in many ways based on their personalities, upbringings and values, so it’s no wonder that deciding how to confront issues at work may pose a challenge.
Picture this scenario: A fellow employee has been going out for non-business-related meals and expensing them on the company credit card. The employee even offers to treat you to lunch one day. But you know this goes against strict company policies. Would you know how to respond?
When your values or ethics are challenged in the workplace, it often happens unexpectedly. Complicated social implications, power dynamics and tension related to confrontation can contribute to a more stressful working environment, negatively impact company culture and even drive the best employees to seek other opportunities—thus hurting employee engagement and retention. If your organization is struggling with these issues, try offering employees a framework for addressing workplace dilemmas—however big or small—to demonstrate your commitment to cultivating a healthy and positive work environment.
One such framework is called Giving Voice to Values (GVV), and it’s used by major corporations worldwide, including Lockheed Martin, Unilever, Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente and others. Importantly, GVV provides the tools for employees to express concerns or address conflicts in the workplace using their own style and strengths, and ultimately, supports them in upholding a principled, professional standard.
While giving values a “voice” within an organization requires a concentrated effort, employees can easily start by following these six tips:
- Understand your values: To determine your own style and strengths, start by looking at how you’ve successfully handled ethical challenges in the past. Building off these experiences, begin to define your purpose, values and ethical boundaries. Then, consider how to respond to conflict in a way that aligns with your principles.
- Understand your colleagues: Take a step back and consider the situation from the other person’s point of view. It’s unlikely their behavior stems from purely unethical reasons, and the behavior may be logical by their own rationale—or even possibly unintentional. Additionally, there may be information unavailable to you that changes the lens on the issue. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes will help address the issue from a starting point of mutual respect.
- Accept conflict as normal: Recognizing that conflict is a natural part of organizational life is key to nipping it in the bud. By accepting it as normal, you can approach conflict with less stress and anxiety, and work to resolve it as soon as possible.
- Prepare your responses: In most cases, the other person will come back with rationale for behaving in a certain way. Prepare talking points for yourself ahead of time, and practice responding with a trusted person who can provide honest feedback. This exercise can help boost your confidence and ensure you advance your point of view in the situation.
- Communicate effectively: Every situation is unique, so it’s important to determine what communication method works best for you under the given circumstances. Do you prefer in-person communication, such as dropping by the person’s office or meeting on neutral ground at a local coffee shop? Or do you feel more comfortable responding via email or phone? It’s often helpful to discuss your approach with a trusted colleague or mentor before taking action.
- Be proactive—don’t wait for conflict to occur: Just as fire drills prepare you to find the right exits in case of fire, GVV works best when you have taken the time to practice using the tools. Your company might offer relevant workshops, but if not, the GVV website provides resources to get you started!
The GVV framework was designed by educator and consultant Mary Gentile to empower business leaders with skills to align their professional paths with their values, and it can prepare you to address small and large challenges in the workplace. Since most people likely have successfully addressed conflict in the workplace before, GVV allows you to draw on that experience and help you continue to build a healthy and honest workplace. If you’re interested in learning more, check out www.GivingVoiceToValuesTheBook.com.
Jane Cote, Ph.D., has served as academic director of Washington State University’s Carson College of Business Vancouver campus since 2005. Her business research examines several issues including how the quality of inter-organizational relationships affects profitability and how to create mechanisms to support professionals facing ethical issues in the workplace. Dr. Cote has earned the Athena Award for Leadership (2004), the YWCA Woman of Achievement (2009) and the WSU Foundation Outstanding Service Award (2015). Prior to earning her Ph.D., she worked in public accounting and as an investment analyst.
Claire Kamm Latham, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business Vancouver campus, where she teaches accounting information systems and internal control, and auditing. Dr. Latham conducts empirical and behavioral research involving ethics and the public accountant with a concentration on efforts to enhance ethics training of students and professional accountants. Her research also focuses the use of behavioral scales in accounting research with a concentration on ethics research.