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Digital Ethics in the Workplace

Do people behave differently in digital environments? Learn why digital ethics is crucial to organizations.

Publish Date: December 12, 2019

Read Time: 6 min

Author: Elizabeth Ritterbush

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In my previous blog, and the interview I did on the Leadership 480 podcast, I discussed what’s required to build an ethical organizational culture. Here I’d like to talk about a related, yet murkier area for leaders and their organizations: digital ethics.

Digital ethics refers to ethical behavior in digital—a.k.a. online—environments. These include email, instant messaging, chat platforms, social media, and other environments where in-person contact with another human has been removed.

The Digital Context

What’s interesting about digital ethics is precisely the environment in which it occurs. Never before have individuals had the power to so extensively, anonymously, and rapidly make decisions that affect the lives of others. The ethical implications of this are enormous. Especially as the emergence of this context may cause people to behave differently than they would when they are sitting with another person or even speaking with them on the phone.

The nature of ethical decisions changes in a virtual environment; it becomes far easier to slip up and make an unethical decision merely because the individuals affected by the decision are removed from the decision maker.

In our busy and chaotic world, we're also more apt to rush to a decision and, therefore, we’re less likely to make a fair and evaluative decision.

To explore these differences, I’d like to address some questions I often hear about digital ethics.

Does a Code of Ethics Really Help?

Rules barring unethical behavior can go a long way toward prevention if they are thoughtfully developed, transparent, and communicated effectively.

However, we also know that while many organizations have codes of ethics in their workplace, some have also had massive ethical violations. It's not enough for a company to declare the rules; the company must also make them a regular part of its organizational culture.

In an environment where the in-person context is removed, this becomes increasingly more important and also more complex.

Scientific theory posits that the presence of or proximity to other individuals is a significant factor when reaching a decision, particularly one of an ethical nature. But with increasingly global and virtual work environments, we don't always see the individuals who are affected by our decisions. We know from evidence that people are far more inclined to be hurtful or vindictive in an anonymous and virtual setting, such as social media.

Does the same fact play out in our virtual work environments as well?

Probably not.

Work environments are increasingly high stakes. Employers often have the power to reprimand or fire employees for their behavior in a digital environment. The digital trail we leave provides a transcript that can be used as evidence of behavior. Thus, unethical behaviors often become more passive aggressive in nature. Acts of omission or oversight become the means of “getting back” at others in a digital environment.

The fundamental problem lies not in the environments in which we work today, but the way the digital context changes the way we engage in decision-making—particularly when making decisions of an ethical nature.

How Important is Hiring the Right People to Promoting Digital Ethics?

The truth is, short of conducting an extensive (and perhaps even invasive) background check, it is nearly impossible to screen for all components of ethical behavior during a selection process. Thus far, the most accurate way we have for predicting ethical behavior or integrity on the job is by using personality tests. Even then, we are only able to predict about 30 percent of the variability in on-the-job behavior.

Still, hiring people predisposed to behave ethically, including in digital environments, is important.

Research has found it’s more probable for individuals who are more open, honest, and empathetic to engage in ethical behavior.

But does that mean we should only hire truly altruistic individuals for digital work environments?

Again, probably not.

While more altruistic or social individuals tend to seek out more social or altruistic career paths, and those personality traits also may make them more likely to think of others, they are not less likely than others to be affected by a digital environment.

Does a Digital Setting Provide Any Benefits to Ethical Decision Making?

Digital environments often require more text-based communication, whther it's via email, social media posts, or text messages. Research has found that in a text-based context, individuals who are given to manipulating others, such as Machiavellians, are less inclined to succeed.

In negotiations, for instance, these individuals are more often rated on the substance of their words and, therefore, often perform worse than they would in more traditional face-to-face interviews that rely on their interpersonal ability.

In digital environments, individuals are further removed from decision-making scenarios in the abstract sense. But the nature of text-based communications also makes it more difficult to manipulate or speak half-truths.

There is one benefit to this context, however: It may be easier to detect lying in a digital context than an in-person one.

If leaders and other decision-makers are trained to look to the substance or facts of a communication and focus less on the tone, it may be possible to catch (and consequently discourage) deceptive behavior. Deception is also only one means by which unethical behaviors appear, though, and research has yet to clarify other ways digital environments would help us avert unethical behavior.

Like most dilemmas in the organizational or business realm, the solution is often multifaceted in nature. In my previous blog, I discussed three ways to promote an ethical organizational culture and increase ethical behavior.

The same approaches apply to digital environments. We know that individuals who are conscientious and hard-working are more likely to follow the rules, but we must also provide those individuals with a place in which they have rules they can and will follow.

So, What Can We Do to Encourage People to Behave Ethically in Digital Environments?

If you are concerned about your virtual employees are engaging ethically with one another, one of my strongest recommendations is to connect: connect often, connect in depth, discuss the things that matter, discuss the social component. Promote a culture of open and transparent communication regardless of physical distance. Nothing represents a commitment to the well-being of your employees, your customers, and your environment like the behavior you exhibit daily.

You should also discuss ethical dilemmas openly and often with your team members. They should know that ethical decisions, even in the smallest sense, matter. They need to believe you are comfortable talking about those issues and acknowledging them in a group setting.

Even in our digital environments there are always times for group discussion or group feedback, especially if we make them priorities. This connection becomes far more important and requires purposeful effort when leading a virtual workforce.

What is the Relationship Between Digital Ethics and Digital Leadership?

Research has not yet determined what makes a leader in a digital environment truly great or what comprises a truly ethical decision in a digital environment. This is likely why these are both currently hot and emerging trends in the business realm.

To explain this further I’ll borrow from eSports, another newly emergent field. We know the coaching methods used in traditional sports do not promote the same level of effective performance in the eSports arena. If anything, those traditional methods only hinder eSports team performance. Why wouldn’t the same understanding apply when considering traditional forms of leadership and the digital leading environment?

Unfortunately, this stage of inquiry is still in its infancy. One thing we know for sure is the world is changing faster every day, and our science must work at high speed to keep pace.

For now, this may mean we need to adapt our traditional models as best we can and truly test our assumptions. As we work to solve the issues of both digital ethics and the true nature of ethical leadership, this may provide an opportune time for science and organizations to learn from each other.

Hear more about the importance of building an ethical organizational culture on this episode of the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Explore the impact leaders have every workday.

Elizabeth Ritterbush, Ph.D., is a leadership consultant at DDI based in Atlanta. She partners with clients globally and across industries to design, implement, and manage leadership development and selection strategies. In her spare time, she can often be found traveling or working on organizational research. Her research interests include a wide variety of topics such as ethical decision making, cross-cultural leadership, organizational culture, and performance management.