When It Comes to Workplace Conduct & Ethics, the Law Is the Lowest Acceptable Standard.

Satisfying minimum legal requirements won’t shield you and your organization from employees, customers, shareholders, and other stakeholders who are impacted by workplace misconduct and unethical behavior. It won’t protect your brand.

You’re at the Monday morning all-hands meeting. Imagine hearing your CEO tell the team “Well, as long as you don’t break the law, I guess it’s okay…” As an HR, legal or compliance professional, you’d spit your lukewarm coffee across the conference room table. Actually, any employee attending that meeting should be doing the same.

Here’s the thing about the law when it comes to workplace conduct & ethics. It simply isn’t good enough to protect your people or protect your brand. A quick Google search will show you that the legislatures tasked with creating these laws are often hotbeds of the astoundingly bad workplace behaviors they are claiming to prevent. That said, meeting the minimum legal requirement is a must-have feature of your corporate culture (at least it better be), but it certainly does not guarantee that your people will behave in a way that is appropriate or acceptable.  

The law may say that all managers need to have two hours of harassment training every two years. You tell me – is two hours of online training or sitting through a lecture by an employment lawyer really doing the trick for your organization? Is it really changing behavior? Is it really preparing your leaders to deal with harassment situations effectively? Is it preventing bad things from happening on the plant floor? You may be satisfying the law, but are you really protecting your people or your organization’s reputation? De jure – yes. De facto – no. Satisfying the law is not, in and of itself, enough to protect your people or protect your brand.

Let’s talk about workplace bullying. Unlike many other countries around the world, to the best of our knowledge, there are still no laws in the U.S., at the state or federal level, that explicitly prohibit workplace bullying. Does that make it ok? When an employee knocks on a manager’s door, in tears and in the early stages of a nervous breakdown due to bullying by a colleague, is it ok for the manager to say “…Sorry you feel that way Jessica but, you know, bullying isn’t illegal here in Kansas, so….” Just because there isn’t a law doesn’t excuse you from your obligation to protect your people.

Some interesting things are happening out there. People are figuring it out. Insurers are denying EPLI (and even D&O) claims. Plaintiffs’ attorneys and disgruntled shareholders are prevailing in large civil suits against companies that may have checked the appropriate legal box but failed to prevent bad behavior from happening. The media, and social media in particular, is unrelenting in exposing organizations that are seen to condone misconduct and unethical behavior – even if they haven’t explicitly broken the law. Abiding by the law is not sufficient protection.

Let’s face it – you can’t legislate good behavior. You can’t create a thriving workplace culture if your sole requirement is “not breaking the law.” Meeting the legal requirements is the lowest acceptable standard – not something that any great organization should aspire to. If you work in an organization that is satisfied with ‘checking the box’ when it comes to eliminating bad workplace conduct and unethical behavior, you should not feel safe.