Promoting Self-Discipline in the Workplace

The old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” People have used this adage throughout the ages to say, “I’ve done everything I can do, so now it’s up to you!” As far as ethics at work goes, this means that employers do their part to make ethical expectations clear and trust the employee to deliver. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This shouldn’t be a guessing game if the employer has truly done all he or she can do to set employees up for ethical success.

Rather than stepping back from the water and letting the horse drink or die, employers must do something more to support and encourage self-discipline in employees.

In the context of ethics, employers lead the horse to water by requiring employees to read the ethics manual, attend a training session, and sign a document swearing to uphold the rules. With that done, employers sit back and rely on the integrity, understanding, and self-discipline of each employee. This is where many ethics programs fall short. They demand the highest standards of self-discipline possible yet do little to promote them in the long run.

The following four questions can be asked by both employees and employers who want to seriously assess how well their company promotes self-discipline.

1. Are the ethical expectations in my organization clearly communicated?

People need to know what is expected of them. It’s human nature. Some employers cloud expectations in vague concepts to accommodate gray areas, while others promote distrust by controlling every aspect of the employee’s existence. Clarity is the key. If the ethical issue is black and white, the employer must leave no room for interpretation. If the issue relies on human judgment, the expectation must be logical and be grounded in principle. Most people want to know what’s expected so they can get on with their job.

2. Are the ethical expectations of my organization based in common sense and reality?

Expectations shouldn’t be burdensome, attainable only by saints. Having unattainable ethical expectations makes criminals out of perfectly good people. It sets them up for failure. The key to this is to not be so locked into rules that you fail to see how they affect real people in the real world.

There must be balance. The irony is that oftentimes the fewer rules the better. People will be more compliant in an atmosphere of freedom governed by principle rather than oppressive restrictions. In other words, it’s not the number of rules in the employee manual but what those rules mean and how relevant they are to real people. For example, rather than having numerous rules on caring for company property, a statement on “respect” written with clarity, conviction, and principle may cover it all.

3. Does the system of dealing with ethical problems show respect and due process to people involved?

In a nutshell, how are people treated once they are caught or accused of unethical conduct? Our legal system operates under the assumption of innocence, in contrast to the workplace, which operates on the assumption of guilt. Although the administration of justice is the prerogative of the company, it must always be done with fairness and respect for everyone involved. Using disciplinary action to punish or intimidate people is in itself unethical and hypocritical. Employers must listen to all the facts. Discipline is something that no one likes, but the process can work toward the good of the organization if justice is genuinely sought and lessons are learned.

4. Is ethics a positive or negative issue in my organization?

It’s no surprise that ethics is predominantly viewed in a negative light. Turning this perception around requires a different way of thinking about what makes an organization successful. There’s more to an ethics program than just preventing loss of assets. It’s about making the company a better place to work and conduct business. A positive ethics approach looks out for the best interests of both the employees and the company. People want to go to work every day knowing that they won’t be harassed, that coworkers play by the rules, supervisors treat them with respect, and the company will honor the ethical principles they hold dear. A serious ethics program will attract and keep good employees not scare them away. Try to see ethics as a vital component in building something great. It can be framed as something that makes life better for everyone not worse.

Like any other positive employee trait (such as increased productivity, better communication, or attention to details) attaining greater self-discipline should receive the same kind of help and support. Remember that the rider and horse need each other. If the horse dies, the rider goes nowhere.