Workplace Ethics: 62 Things That Are Legal, But 22 Of Them Are Unethical

"Oh, sure, he's hell to work for, but he never breaks any laws, so you'll be fine."

“Oh, sure, he’s hell to work for, but he never breaks any laws, so you’ll be fine.”

I have been remiss in not adding the terrific blog Evil HR Lady to the Ethics Alarms links, and will finally do so as soon as I post this entry. No profession deal s with ethical nuances and dilemmas more frequently than human resources professionals, and they can be very difficult, even gut-wrenching. In a recent post, EHRL searched through the archives of questions she has answered over the past years, and compiled an eye-opening list, especially for non-lawyers, of the conduct employers could engage in legally, which is to say, get away with and not be successfully sued, to employees, together with some questionable kinds of conduct that are legal for employees to do to each other.

She listed 62 of them, many of which are reasonable ( it’s okay to fire an employee for “being a jerk”) and some are obvious, or should be;  it is legal to quote the Bible in the office, for example. What is legal is not always good, fair, or right, however, and I perused the list with an eye out for legal workplace conduct that was legal but still unethical. About a third of the types of conduct on the Evil HR Lady’s list made mine. What follows is the sub-list of the 62 things it is legal to do at work, the 22 things it may be legal to do at work, but which are still unethical. The reasons for my unethical verdict follow Evil HR Lady’s items.

Here’s the list of the unethical 22 workplace practices:

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your manager to share your resignation letter with your coworkers.

A Golden Rule breach. This is gratuitously unkind.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your coworker to refuse to speak to you.

Rudeness and unreasonable conduct are usually legal, and still deplorable; also unprofessional.

  • It’s legal —but still unethical— for your manager to tell your coworker that she plans to write you up.

Unprofessional. The mark of an incompetent manager.

  • It’s legal —but still unethical— to fill a job without advertising it and giving other people a chance to apply for it.

Unfair and disrespectful.

  • It’s legal —but still unethical— for your employer to reveal your salary to your coworkers.

As above: an incompetent management practice, and also irresponsible.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your company owner to hold his or her spouse, who works there, to different standards than everyone else is held to.

Favoritism is legal, just unfair, damaging to morale,irresponsible and stupid—another watermark of poor managers and leaders.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your boss to ask you to pick up his lunch, even though it’s not in your job description.

This is an abuse of power, unless there is a valid work-related reason other than the fact that the boss is a lazy slug.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your manager to yell.

Being a jerk is unethical. More on this topic below.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to make you stay at the office and work if you decline to go on the company cruise.

This is vindictive, unnecessary—and just mean.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to share your performance stats with your coworkers.

A guaranteed way to stir up trouble for supervisors and to harm staff morale. Unless the stats sound alarms for discrimination, this is unprofessional and irresponsible.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your employer to have a random coworker deliver the message that you’re fired.

Yechh! Cowardly and disrespectful.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your boss to let your coworker have three-day weekends, even though she doesn’t have seniority.

Yes, favoritism is legal. It’s also toxic management practice, and obviously unfair.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your boss to require you to read a self-help book and test you on it.

A breach of respect and autonomy. A self-help book? I’d quit on general principles. 

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to ban sugary foods from the office.

Food, exercise and health Nazis in the workplace are indeed legal, and despicable. They take advantage of their power to force employees to adopt life-styles they approve of.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your employer to give your cell phone number to other employees.

Without your permission? A straight Golden Rule violation.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to fire you for complaining about something that is not illegal.

Obviously incessant and unreasonable nagging can be a firing offense. Telling the boss that his choice of Muzak makes you want to retch, however, should be accepted and considered. Good and ethical managers can handle criticism and dissent

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to not hire someone because you dislike their relatives.

This is legal only because there’s no easy way to make it illegal. This practice is guilt by association, and obviously unfair.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to hire your cousin over a more qualified unrelated candidate.

Nepotism is unethical even in workplaces that permit it.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for HR to forward your confidential emails to other people.

Unless there is a very good reason, this is another Golden Rule violation. Yes, you have no “expectation of privacy” when you use a company server, but an employer sharing your confidential e-mails with third parties is still a rotten thing to do.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to fire someone via email.

Again, disrespectful and cowardly.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— to be a jerk.

Jerks make life, including the workplace, harder and less enjoyable for everybody….and usually they could stop being  jerks if they respected the rest of us.

  • It’s legal—but still unethical— for your boss to require you to put little bags of wedding favors together.

This is a classic abuse of power.

“But it’s legal!” is one of the most heard of all rationalizations. Any employer or employee who uses that bottom of the sea floor standard for workplace conduct is a scandal or some other kind of disaster waiting to happen. Someone who only cares about the law is Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Bad Man” (or bad woman) and is inherently untrustworthy…as a boss, as an employee, as a leader, even as a friend.

__________________________________

Pointer: Corporate Counsel

Source: Evil HR Lady

Graphic: Urantian Sojourn

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

 

It’s legal to fire someone for being a jerk.
It’s legal to fire someone for being a jerk.
It’s legal to fire someone for being a jerk.

9 thoughts on “Workplace Ethics: 62 Things That Are Legal, But 22 Of Them Are Unethical

  1. Politicians in particular seem to have this blind spot. If they feel they have to justify their behavior using the “it’s legal (also known as no controlling legal authority)” defense, they probably really have doubts about whether or not it’s ethical. But, maybe I flatter politicians with self-reflective attitudes they actually lack.

  2. I’ve been fired by e-mail.
    They pretty much had to – I was a week in on a 3 month overseas deployment.
    I had to work through the 3 month notice period of course. Not a lot of opportunity to go job hunting from the other side of the planet either.

    The customer, whose site I was working at, was livid. They were hoping to extend the contract so I could work on another project they were having difficulty with. Because of no-compete clauses, I couldn’t even work for them privately.

    • So the question is- did honor keep you working at top capability? Or, knowing that you were done anyway, did you just half-ass it and do the minimum? I know what I probably would have done…

  3. I’ve never had to give a coworker notice they were being fired, but I once had to “guard” a fired coworker as he gathered his things and left to make sure there was no theft or vandalism on the way out. That was in an unusual job, though.

  4. I once had to “guard” a fired coworker as he gathered his things and left to make sure there was no theft or vandalism on the way out.
    **************
    My husband’s had to do that several times. 😦

    • It was a summer camp job. A group of guys got fired for being drunk, at the same time as we were trying to get the place set up for a big event. There just weren’t enough management and maintenance people to chase all the loose ends, so I got on guard duty on the basis of having been around a lot and being big enough to stop any shenanigans. I think they were all more embarassed than vengeful anyway.

  5. This sounds like a lot of whining. Sure, none of these are good things to occur in a workplace, but most workplaces have policies against them. If you don’t like their policies, don’t work there! For example, I’m a lifeguard, and our manager has banned sugary drinks, particularly soda, because they cause dehydration, and several guards pass out on stand every summer without them. There a things that aren’t necessarily right that should be illegal.

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