Professionalism/Office Ethics according to The Office
The American TV series The Office parodies office workers' day-to-day interactions. The Office resonates with audiences because of its exaggerated yet relatable portrayal of office life. The show's mishaps and uncomfortable situations can be used as teaching tools for professional ethics. Case studies from The Office, combined with examples from real workplaces, studies of productivity, and research on office sociology, can be combined to reach overarching conclusions about office ethics.
When employees intentionally perform non work-related tasks during paid working hours, they are committing time theft  . Common examples include arriving late, leaving early, daydreaming, and cyber-slacking. When employees engage in these activities, they are stealing company time. Examples of time theft in The Office are abundant and include, but are not limited to, Phyllis sitting at her desk knitting while Stanley sleeps and Michael Scott, the office manager, declaring "When I discovered YouTube, I didn't work for 5 days."
Although the Office often shows extreme examples, time theft is a genuine problem and costs American companies more than $177 billion annually . Researchers suggest that bosses can mitigate time theft by holding work ethics discussions to change attitudes about time theft while enforcing punishments for those who engage in time theft. As a manager, Michael Scott does not engage in such beneficial behavior. When orienting new employees, he disregards the traditional orientation manual and play his home-made video, “Lazy Scranton,” during which he raps about performing non-work related activities. In an episode entitled The Coup, Jan berates Michael when she discovers that, every Monday, he called employees into the office in order to watch a movie.
Cyberslacking, or using workplace technology to do non-workplace related tasks (browsing Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter), is a common form of time theft in modern offices. Cyberslacking is commonly deemed unethical, but some argue that a small amount of personal internet use is beneficial. Studies show that taking short breaks from work improves productivity in office settings. Employees who take occasional breaks to cyberslack may experience relief from stress, boredom, and fatigue. Cyberslacking has been found to improve creativity and overall employee happiness. Some consider cyberslacking to be the new form of a "coffee-break" for office workers.
To reduce excessive cyberslacking, a mutual agreement should be made between employer and employee about when and how cyberslacking is allowed. Some companies use surveillance to monitor what their employees are doing online. If there is a high level of surveillance, a culture of distrust can form between the employer and employee, which can decrease productivity. Therefore, a balance must be established between upper management and the employees about what is ethical in regards to cyberslacking. At Dunder Mifflin, Michael actively encourages his employees to commit time theft and cyberslack, which results in an unproductive work place.
In 2011, 638 whistleblowing cases were filed, and $2.8 billion were recovered from previous claims. Whistleblowers are protected under law from employer retaliation, but there are many cases of termination, suspension, demotion, wage loss, or harsh mistreatment by other employees.  Research shows two-thirds of whistleblowers “lost their job or were forced to retire” and “were blacklisted from getting another job in their ﬁeld.” Consequently, these individuals faced severe ﬁnancial problems. 84% of whistleblowers suffered from “severe depression or anxiety," 69% had “declining physical health,” 84% had feelings of "isolation and powerlessness," 78% felt distrust towards others, 66% suffered a "severe financial decline," and 53% had "problems with family relations".
The Office explores two types of whistleblowing, the first of which involves reporting instances of severe misconduct with potential for legal ramification. The second type of whistleblowing involves reporting a colleague or superior when you do not see him or her as fit for their job. Many of the characters on The Office, as well as employees in real life, witness instances of incompetency at work and have to rely on their professionalism and ethics to help assess whether the instance needs reporting.
Reporting blatant misconduct
An example of whistleblowing "gone wrong" from The Office occurs in Episode 503, "Business Ethics." Holly, the HR rep, conducts a business ethics workshop using an instructive binder from corporate. Michael thinks the binder is boring and unhelpful, so he changes up the pace by telling everyone to admit times they have acted unethically and promises "immunity." Meredith then announces that she is sleeping with someone to gain discounts for the company and coupons to Outback Steakhouse. Holly believes she cannot ignore this information, so she informs corporate. This makes her a whistleblower, and everyone in the office distrusts her. Michael refuses to be her friend, making office distrust even worse.
In an interview, Holly says “It’s been a little intense. People are suspicious of me, and my best friend in the office won’t even talk to me. Turns out being the morality police does not make you popular.” Corporate's responds that “We're not sure circumstances warrant any action.” They claim this is a grey area and conclude that, because they are going through tough times, it is not in their best interest to turn their noses up at a discount.
In this case The Office shows exactly why it is so difficult to make change within a company where management makes unethical decisions and whistleblowers are treated with hostility. Although whistleblowers suffer a number of injustices in the workplace, they are crucial in preventing fraud and helping companies act ethically.
Working in a professional environment, employees may notice incompetencies or short-comings of those working around them. It is up to employee to determine if these inadequacies become harmful to the company or those working around them. The employee must decide when to speak up if a peer or employer are not competent for their job. Many examples in The Office show characters grappling with this decision, at the risk of losing respect, or even friends. This type of whistleblowing presents a grayer area than reporting misconduct since it involves personal judgment as to whether an offense has been committed or not.
Examples of characters struggling with this form of whistleblowing include:
- Dunder Mifflin's accounting office is run by three employees, Oscar, Angela, and Kevin. It is established early in the series that it is widely known in the office that Kevin is not equipped to handle his job. After making a reckless typing error, in the episode, Weight Loss, Angela yells at him, "Listen, dummy! It's not that hard. All you have to do is take the numbers from the sales report and type them into a master spreadsheet. A G.D. monkey could do it. I do not understand why you can't do it." Despite the fact everyone in the office knows Kevin is not an effective accountant, no one reports him when his mistakes cost the company.
- In Counseling, Pam realizes she is not an effective salesperson. She manipulates Michael into giving her an office administration job and lies to obtain the position. In subsequent episodes, we find out that Pam is equally unqualified for this position and no one is able to find out how she obtained it.
- In Initiation, Michael's boss asks Pam to keep a log of all of the things he does for one day, to make sure he is being productive. Throughout the day, Michael does minimal to no work. In the afternoon, he eats too much and falls asleep at his desk due to a "sugar high." While he is napping, Michael's boss calls Pam to check if Michael is working hard, and Pam lies and says he is in a meeting. Pam is aware that Michael had not been productive all day, as he is not on many days, but still does not report him out of respect.
These examples show how Dunder Mifflin, and other workplaces alike, can be harmed by a lack of reporting incompetency. Whistleblowing requires ethical evaluation of the situation and ultimately determining if company loss can be avoided by reporting.
Throughout The Office there are several examples of stealing, many of which feature the character Creed. In Branch Closing, when rumors float around that the local branch is closing, Creed is seen selling a printer and a CPU. In another episode, he collects money from other employees to put in a farewell card for a former employee. As he leaves the room he empties the cash into his wallet and throws away the card. Creeds views on stealing are revealed when he says, “Oh I steal things all the time. Its’ just something I do. I stopped caring a long time ago. You should see how many supplies I’ve taken from this place. Honestly, I love stealing things.”
Creed’s stealing is minor compared to some headlining incidents in the real world. In the case of Pacific Northwest, a popular Hong Kong coffee retailer, an employee created a fake consulting company, which requested invoices be sent to the employee’s special P.O. box. In one year the employee embezzled $3.7 million. Hundreds of cases of employee theft are reported each week, and many others go unnoticed. According to ACFE, employee fraud cost businesses $994 billion in 2009, 7% of all revenues. Employee theft causes more company bankruptcies than any other crime.
To avoid employee theft, companies must be proactive. Companies can set up a system for employees to tip off cases of theft. Careful hiring is also important. In 70% of all employee theft cases, the perpetrator was hired within the past thirty days . By avoiding hiring employees with short employment track records, companies may reduce employee theft. Dunder Mifflin as a company, and Michael Scott as a manager, do not engage in any of these initiatives to monitor and prevent theft.
Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
Sexual Harassment and Discrimination are ethical and professional concerns that occur in professional environments. The Office includes many instances in which employees are harassed and discriminated against. In Gay Witch Hunt, Michael Scott finds out that Oscar (an accountant in The Office) is gay. Michael immediately changes the way he acts around the office and how he acts around Oscar. This quickly makes Oscar very uncomfortable. Michael Scott tries to show Oscar that he is "okay" with Oscar being gay by watching gay porn in front of him. This "I'm-okay-with-this" behavior culminates in Michael forcibly kissing Oscar.
Three more examples that call into question the ethical behavior of the employees on The Office include:
- Sexual Harassment: Todd Packer visits the office and constantly makes crude comments. Harassment allegations are then filed on someone in corporate.
- The Convict: Andy calls Jim at work and says “I'm so horny” and talks about which girl he should try to hook up with at the office
- Benihana Christmas: Michael gestures to grab his girlfriends butt as they walk into the office in front of the other employees.
These examples raise important professional ethics issues about sexual harassment and discrimination. After being harassed by Michael, Oscar is given three months paid vacation and use of a company car in exchange for not suing Dunder Mifflin. This is a clear admittance by Dunder Mifflin that what Michael did was professionally and ethically wrong. In this instance, Michael acted unethically, and the company as a whole acted unethically by covering up the incident and not seeking punishment.
In real workplaces, lawsuits for sexual harassment are common and cost companies millions of dollar. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 11,364 sexual harassment charges were filed in 2011 and yielded $52.3 million, not including benefits obtained through litigation. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, 37% of LGBT individuals experienced employment discrimination between 1996 and 1997. Discrimination in the work place due to sexual orientation has been shown to decrease productivity
Safety in the workplace
To many in management, workplace safety is paramount. The most common ways in which office accidents and injuries occur are fires, electrical shocks, and physical hazards (falling down stairways, tripping over desk drawers, straining one’s back by improperly lifting heavy materials). Businesses have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide a safe work environment for employees. Employees are expected to act in accordance to safety laws and the business’s instructions to prevent endangering their coworkers. On The Office, some employees consistently disobey safety protocols and endanger their fellow workmates. Examples include:
- Dwight proclaims "I keep various weaponry strategically placed around the office … people say, 'Ooh, it's dangerous to keep weapons in the home or the workplace.' Well I say it's better to be hurt by somebody you know accidentally than by somebody you don’t know on purpose."
- During The Fire the fire alarm goes off and Michael pushes coworkers out of the way to escape and save himself. Michael, realizing he can't find his cell phone, later allows Dwight to go back into the office to look for it. Michael then realizes it was in his pocket the entire time and his actions endangered Dwight.
- During Stress Relief, Dwight becomes annoyed that his coworkers have not taken his fire safety meetings seriously, so he stages a fake fire as a drill to teach them a lesson. He sets up a worst case scenario by sealing all the office exits shut, cutting the phone lines, and causing a fire in a trashcan. While Dwight explains safety procedures, his coworkers try to escape by throwing chairs into windows, crawling through air ducts, and breaking equipment without regard to other's safety. Dwight then explains that it was just a drill, but Stanley is already overwhelmed from the stress and has a heart attack.
If handled inappropriately, romantic workplace relationships can be a liability to a company. Most companies have policy in place regarding how to appropriately handle office relationships. Research suggests 60% of workers have been involved in some sort of office romance. When office relationships do not follow a company's dating policy, the company and individuals involved are liable to legal action pertaining to harassment and favoritism. Claims of favoritism are more frequent when one of the members of an office relationship is a superior.
Michael and Jan have a tumultuous relationship that results in legal action over Jan's favoritism. Jan is Michael's superior and treats him differently than she does other branch managers once they start dating. In The Negotiation, Michael goes to Jan's office to discuss a salary raise. During the meeting, Jan dismisses the HR rep (who is required to be in the room since the two are dating), and gives Michael a raise under the table. Ultimately, Jan's relationship with Michael causes her to make increasingly worse decisions within the company, resulting in her firing in The Job.
The Office portrays many ways in which workplace romances can be professional and unprofessional. Michael and Holly's relationship represents both. They begin dating in secret, despite the fact Dunder Mifflin requires all workplace relationships be filed with their corporate HR department. They eventually file their relationship, following the professional protocol their company has established. Once their relationship is no longer secret, Michael and Holly begin acting inappropriately in the office, believing that since their relationship is out in the open, they can act as openly as they feel. In PDA, the two publicly and inappropriately express their love for one another, causing the rest of the office to feel uncomfortable.
Throughout the series, Dwight and Angela engage in a secret tryst, often in the office, on company time. They do not report their relationship to corporate, and use work time to meet up. In real life, approximately 39% of people engaging in an office romance keep their relationship a secret for various reasons . HR employees report spending 24% of their time on workplace relationship related issues. Workplace romances must be approached ethically, and with caution, to assure company time and resources are not wasted in resolving romantic conflicts.
Abuse of power
A common ethical dilemma often experienced in the workplace is the abuse of power. When a person is given power over certain realms of an office, it can be hard to determine the appropriate extent of their power into other realms. When this power spreads outside the realm of prescribed responsibility, or is used for personal benefit, it becomes abuse. Employees often feel they cannot speak up against power abuse for fear of consequences or do not recognize power abuse when it is happening. This category also seeps into the concept of Whistleblowers. Employees that do come forward in response to a higher-up's power abuse are often persecuted either personally or professionally, which discourages others from being more outspoken. This concept intersects with John B Watson's theory of behaviorism: people are influenced to behave in ways that will results in rewards rather than punishment. This often plays a role in tolerating power abuse.
Power abuse in The Office is often committed by Michael. Such a case is exemplified when he says "I want people to be scared of how much they love me." He has a strong desire to be friends with his employees and often uses his status as their boss to manipulate them and bring them into his personal life. In the episode Fun Run, after hitting Meredith with his car in the parking lot, Michael decides he needs to make amends with Meredith and keep office morale high. He decides to use company time and money to host a fun run for rabies.
Michael also uses his power to avoid doing his job. In episode 3, Health Care, Michael has been tasked with choosing a new healthcare plan for the office. He deflects this responsibility to Dwight, who is not qualified to make this decision. When the plan gets ruined and employees start to complain, Michael hides in his office and ignores them. Similarly, in the episode The Surplus, Michael must decide whether to give his employees bonuses from the surplus money or to keep it for himself. After much debate and many suggestions from employees, Michael decides to take himself to Burlington Coat Factory with the money.
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- Sexual Harassment Charges EEOC & FEPAs Combined: FY 1997-FY2011. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment.cfm
- National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund: Testimony of the National Gay and Lesbian Task force Action Fund. June 26, 2008
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