Values, ethics matter in workplace

WEST ISLIP — Ethics isn’t only about big, complex issues, but involves something as simple as taking food that isn’t yours from the office refrigerator.

“Yes, it is a moral issue,” said Catherine Seeley, an ethics educator and consultant and veteran of Catholic health care institutions, at an annual ethics conference at Our Lady of Consolation Nursing and Rehabilitative Care Center June 9 sponsored by Catholic Health Services of Long Island. “It connects with the value behind the Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

Seeley, who once worked in bereavement for Calvary Hospital in the Bronx and more recently as vice president for mission and ethics at a New England Catholic hospital, noted that taking co-workers’ food was the most frequently cited issue — 93 percent — in a 2003 Johns Hopkins University study on civility in the workplace.

Cited almost as frequently were refusing to work hard on team projects and shifting blame to co-workers for your mistakes, Seeley explained. “It’s about honor, integrity and truthfulness.” Other top issues were reading other people’s mail and neglecting to say “please” and “thank you.”

Speaking on values and ethics in the workplace, Seeley addressed nurses, chaplains, administrators, and others, at morning and afternoon sessions.

Seeley emphasized the need for civility in the workplace and society in general in an age, she said, “where there is a huge erosion of courtesy” with serious consequences.

Manners reflect the character of an institution, which should respect both fellow employees and the people that the institution serves, Seeley said. “Bad manners can erode positive moods and ultimately damage the work itself.”

She cited a study that found that workplace rudeness costs $6.4 billion a year.
“How can rudeness cost billions of dollars?” one participant asked.

Staff members, upset from an encounter with a rude co-worker, might stop working for part of the day. In some cases she said, an upset employee takes a sick day or requires medical attention, using company health insurance.

“Rudeness unchecked accelerates,” Seeley said, becoming the roots of violence. “Think of road rage, and today we’re even hearing about parking lot rage and post-game rage.”

The Johns Hopkins study also noted complaints of violence in the workplace, such as pushing a co-worker out of the way, yelling at a co-worker, firing a subordinate in the heat of anger, harshly criticizing a subordinate in front of others, and foul language.

Civility was emphasized by the philosopher Aristotle, who wrote an early treatise on civic friendship. “He wrote in an era that was like ours,” she said, with rapid change and the influx of people from different places.

“Civic friendship brings about harmony in society through mutual well-wishing and mutual well-doing,” Seeley said. “You know, speaking to people you pass and holding the door open for them.”

One application of Aristotle’s insight is the “10 & 5 Rule,” whereby every employee who approaches within 10 feet of another will make eye contact, Seeley explained. “If you come within five feet you greet the person.

“Where the 10 & 5 rule exists, customer service goes up,” Seeley said. Employees become more aware of each other, take the time to be civil, and that carries over to relations with people who come to the institution.

For Aristotle, cultivating mutual well-wishing and well-doing leads to a sense of community and attachment “because we feel connected,” Seeley said. Attachment leads to caring.

That kind of caring helps make for a just society and also fosters individual well-being, Seeley said. “Kindness is good for others and for kind persons.”

The way that employees treat each other is a reflection of the mission of an institution, Seeley said. “Every institution has a mission. Every mission entails certain values. The mission is an integral and crucial element for the vibrancy of any place,” creating an energy which fosters the institution’s success.

Living out the mission, Seeley said, is especially important for a Catholic institution, which is founded on respect for human dignity and a commitment to treating people not as objects but as human subjects. “With a Catholic institution, you ought to be able to tell the difference.”