Instituting civility and ethics in the workplace | Inquirer Business
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Instituting civility and ethics in the workplace

I WAS recently a facilitator of one of the learning sessions in an HR conference where the topic was “Instituting Civility and Ethics in the Workplace.”

One will wonder whoever thought of such topic.  Ethics has been much talked in several fora.  But civility?  I found the term strong and odd.  The  workplace, in my view, is much more modern and sophisticated from its old, primitive days.  Maybe urbanities could have been a more apt term?


Definition of civility and ethics

Anyway, from the start, I asked two of our distinguished panelists, Sarah McLeod of Q2 HR Solutions, Inc. and Andre Joseph Anthony Alip of the Association of Human Resource Managers (AHRM) in the Hospitality Industry, about the definition of civility and ethics.  We all agreed that civility is more about manners, the basics of being mindful or sensitive to the situation of others. Ethics, on the other hand, is being able to distinguish, and act accordingly, between what is right and what is wrong?


Let us take the case of buying a medicine from your nearby drugstore.  There are drugstores that do not follow a queuing system.  So one waits for his/her turn in the counter, hoping to be spotted by a mindful attendant.  Suddenly out of nowhere from behind you, a customer hands in a prescription to the attendant.  Expecting that his/her long reach will get the attention of the attendant, an unmindful attendant attends to him/her first; a mindful attendant tells the customer that there is another customer who is in front of him/her who came in first.  Seldom can one find that the  customer himself/herself will be the one to tell an attendant to serve the other customer first since that other customer came in ahead of him/her.  A case of civility or lack of it.  Oh yes.

I learned civility at home at an early age.  Such behavior was reinforced by my  Japanese superiors and colleagues who are very mindful people when I worked with a Japanese electronics company for 14-1/2 years.  When one takes the escalator in Japan, you will see that the Japanese always stay on the left side of the escalator so that they do not block those who take the right side who are in a hurry to get to where they want to be.   Even if I was a Vice President in this company, I photocopied my own documents.  There is a practice where the user of the photocopying machine, before he/she leaves the machine,  has to check first the paper tray to see if there is paper on the tray for the next user.   No doubt a classic case of mindfulness.

Here is another case.  Someone got hold of a copy of an official bid of a close competitor.  Will he/she use the opportunity to outbid the close competitor by using the information that he/ she has in order to win the bid?  A case of ethics or lack of it?  Yes.

I was once an Assistant Vice President of a financial institution.  Their office was in Paseo De Roxas and we had to go to De La Rosa to park our vehicles. The President thought that in order not to inconvenience the company’s senior executives, all Vice Presidents & above can make use of valet parkers who were designated to bring the executives’ vehicles from Paseo to De La Rosa car park.  Being the Head of HR & Administration, the management of valet parking was under my department.  My Administration Supervisor kept on telling me to avail myself of the valet parking privilege.  I refused.  I was not a Vice President and was not entitled to the privilege.

Why would people be engaged in uncivilized and unethical acts?

Let me quote an excerpt from my previous article also in this newspaper, “The Continuing Saga of Reversal of Values.”

“The priest said that nowadays, there seems to be a “reversal of values” around the world, shown through the following observed behavior of people:


1. People will pursue happiness at all costs but that happiness is “nauseating.”

2. While people should normally love “this thing” because it is good, people now consider “this thing” as good because they love it.

3. The soul has now been replaced with the self.”

Yes, it all boils down to the “self.”  Everyone ones to get ahead.  Everyone wants to have self-gain at the expense of others.  The attitude of  selflessness particularly in terms of building relationships is not commonplace.  Selfish acts, in my view, trigger uncivilized & unethical behavior.

Becoming a good human being before becoming a good human resource

In a panel interview among CEOs and CHROs of large corporations in Bangladesh, the facilitator asked the panel, “Before one becomes a good human resource, how does he/she become a good human being?”   Most of the panelists answered that it has something do with upbringing which I felt did not answer the question because the question focused on becoming, not how one has become.  So my answer was “mindfulness.”  There is still hope to become a good human being.  Mindfulness of the feelings of other people, mindfulness in the way we conduct ourselves, and mindfulness in always focusing on what is good for others, not what is good for us.

It is better to be kind than to be right

I broached the idea of “sometimes, it is better to be kind than to be right” during the panel discussion, hoping to play devil’s advocate.   Mr. Alip was quick to point out that one can be kind and right at the same time.  Even when terminating the services of an employee, he said, the act of making it known to the employee that he did something wrong and should be penalized for his/her wrongdoing may well be considered an act of kindness because it will send the correct signal to the organization as well as to the erring employee that the right will be rewarded and the wrong will be punished.  Ms. McLeod agreed.  She too has the firm belief that the wrong should not be tolerated, especially acts involving integrity, emphasizing the need for being non-compromising under such circumstances.

Pyramidal behavior

When one takes a look at the pattern of behavior of those seeking civility and ethics in the workplace, it is this writer’s view that everything starts with civility, coupled with being mindful with the situation others.  Then you have ethics, ensuring that one is able to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, and avoiding uncompromising situations when one will be forced to give up his/her integrity.  It does not end here.  There is this thing we call spirituality in the workplace, not in terms of the propagation of one’s religious belief.  It is doing the greater good and making choices that have both meaning and purpose that will benefit others, not the self.

In the end, everyone of us in the panel agreed that since HR is the “social conscience of the organization,” it is incumbent upon the HR professional to ensure that all functional areas of HR, from rewards to communication to training and employee relations, will have a role to play in coming up with timely and relevant interventions to institute civility & ethics in the workplace.

(Ernie  is the President of Human Resource (HR) Gabay Asia Pacific, Inc.  He is a Board Member for 2014-2016 of two of the largest international HR federations in the world, the World Federation of People Management Associations (WFPMA) where he was President in 2008-2010, and the Asia Pacific Federation of Human Resource Management (APFHRM) where he was President in 2007-2008 and 2012-2014. He was the People Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP) President in 2002 and PMAP’s recipient of the People Manager of the Year Award in 2006.  He was Vice President HR of Energy Development Corporation and Fujitsu Computer Products Corporation of the Philippines.   He can be reached at [email protected])

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