Airport Coffee & Ethics
By Kelsey Medeiros, PhD
My colleague and I arrive at Dallas Lovefield Airport at 6:30am. After breezing through the standard security procedures, we find our way to the coffee kiosk. Standing silently in line, as all good colleagues and friends do at such an early hour, we let our eyes wander towards the door propped open at the back of the coffee kiosk. Instantly, we both notice the glaringly silly Homer Simpson safety sign – we smile and let out a small chuckle.
Our eyes then gaze down towards a small nearly greyed-out sign hanging below Homer. The sign, pictured below, is barely legible. Certainly, the title is misprinted and obscured. The remaining content lists unethical acts which should be reported to the number provided. My colleague and I lock eyes as she says, “that’s interesting,” and I approach the sign to snap a picture for later use.
A few hours and sips of our coffee later, this sign sparks an interesting discussion. The discussion centers on two key organizational ethics topics – 1) communicating the importance of ethics and 2) whistleblowing.
Let’s start with communicating the importance of ethics. It’s excellent that this coffee kiosk is emphasizing the need to report ethical errors. Scientific studies suggest that this type of activity may help reduce unethical behavior. For instance, having students sign ethics codes appears to reduce cheating. The problem with this particular sign, however, is that its poor quality communicates a lackluster emphasis on ethics. If we were to ask a stranger in the line, “based on this door, what do you think is important to management?,” my guess would be that they would say safety. In contrast to the ethics sign, the Homer safety sign is colorful, attention grabbing, legible, and large. The ethics sign, on the other hand, is small, grey, difficult to read, and of poor quality.
How a message is delivered matters just as much as what that message states. It’s like the old saying, “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” In organizational ethics, if a message emphasizing the importance of making the right decision or reporting unethical acts is delivered with little energy and in a low quality manner, employees may fail to take it seriously and see it as an organizational priority. Gaining employee support for such programs is key and one way to gain support is by emphasizing the importance and quality of these programs. This is communicated both in content and delivery.
The second topic raised in our discussion of this sign was whistleblowing. Whistleblowing refers to the act of reporting or bringing attention to unethical acts. The purpose of this sign is to encourage employees to blow the whistle on others who commit unethical acts. Setting up a hotline such as this creates an excellent outlet for employees to call in and anonymously report unethical behavior.
Although I could fill multiple posts on the complexities of whistleblowing, I will end the discussion on this note. Before being informed as to how to report misconduct, employees must first be taught the following – what is misconduct? In other words, employees must be made aware of what is ethical and unethical behavior. This can be accomplished through awareness trainings or workshops where rules and their grey areas are discussed.
Once employees have been made aware of what constitutes misconduct, they should then be informed as to how to report that misconduct. Setting up a formal system or expectations by which employees report unethical behavior can help them navigate an often difficult process. How to report misconduct should then be clearly communicated to employees through training programs. A sign on the back door may also serve as a good reminder of the reporting system. However, if the sign is illegible, it won’t be of much use.
The Ethics Advantage Team