Taking Care of the “Stuff” of Work

Read the business headlines and you’ll find ethical crises like embezzlement, fraud, or misuse of company products or services making the headlines. High profile ethical breaches like these all have to do with something near and dear to a company’s heart; its assets. This is known in the workplace as the “stuff” which the company has paid for and that you use every day in your job. When it comes to company assets (in ANY form) things get serious. Mess with the money or the stuff, and you’ll end up in hot water really fast. On the surface, this seems cut and dried, but is it as easy as it sounds?

For those of us without executive power and influence millions of dollars, ethically taking care of company assets may be a non-issue. You show up for work, do your job, and go home without engaging in any high finance or legal maneuvers. Little did you know, during your seemingly routine day, you had hundreds or even thousands of dollars of assets under your control. With all the stuff that passes you by each day at work, you probably never think about it in terms of assets and your responsibility.

Do you drive a company car, work on a computer, or maintain equipment? Do you use a company credit card or expense account? Do you have access to or are you responsible for intellectual property or company records? All these are examples of assets. Some are physical and some are intangible, such as company secrets, trademarks, and confidential information. Every employee from the janitor to the executive controls some kind of asset every time he or she shows up for work.

Most people don’t give company assets a second thought until they are lost, stolen or broken. Herein lies the problem. Employees must understand that ethical behavior is demonstrated not only in how they act toward others but also in how they treat property that doesn’t belong to them. The key to success is understanding who owns what and what boundaries exist for its use.

Your mother may have said, “treat other people’s property as if it were your own.” As a child, if you borrowed a toy, you took extra special care of it. As a guest in another home you didn’t touch anything that wasn’t yours. Why doesn’t this lesson seem to transfer to the company’s property where we work? As an adult, you know better. Now it seems that caring for assets doesn’t matter as much because the company always has enough money or deep pockets to replace the stuff we break or use up. If no one else cares, why should we? But those simple moral truths from childhood don’t grow obsolete with age. The fact is, we should care about how we treat property that isn’t ours.

Everyone deals with stuff differently. Some detach themselves from the asset so they don’t care about it or they attach themselves too much so they feel like the rightful owners. In the first situation, learning to care about company stuff is accomplished through thoughtful consideration. Who paid for this and how would I feel about writing the check that pays for it? What are the boundaries for appropriate use? This is an attitude that doesn’t necessarily change from work to home. An ethical person doesn’t put a dollar amount on respecting the property of others. He or she always makes a moral connection between property, ownership, and responsibility.

In the second case, becoming too attached or familiar with company property creates a problem as well. If you use something every day, you may become desensitized to its appropriate professional use. Do you balance company financial accounts like your own? Do you find yourself hitting the computer or kicking the copier (even if it deserves it)? Is the company treated like your own? Do you treat records and private information in a casual manner? It might be time to take a more serious approach to company property.

Beware of “messing with the money or the stuff” because ethical situations involving company assets, no matter how small, are rarely smoothed over with an apology. There’s always a smoking gun that does not leave gray areas for rationalization or explanation. Most industries deal with asset abuse or misuse with disciplinary action or termination on the first offense.

Again, business ethics boils down to the day-to-day choices you make no matter who you are or what responsibilities you have. From the minute you step from the parking lot into your workplace, see the things around you in proper context. Although Shakespeare said, “All the world’s is a stage,” don’t treat the “stuff” like props.