Professionalism/Office Ethics according to The Office
The Office is an American TV series that is a parody of the day-to-day interactions of office workers. Although the situations and interactions in the office are exaggerated, this parody provides cases that can support well substantiated, generalizable conclusions about office ethics. The Office resonates with audiences because of what it has to say about office life and therefore can be a teaching tool about professional ethics. The case studies from The Office will be combined with examples from real workplaces, real studies of productivity, and real research on office sociology to determine overarching conclusions about office ethics. In other words, this parody is used to build a serious framework about office ethics.
This chapter considers a number of professional ethics cases from the series.
Anytime employees intentionally perform non work-related tasks during their 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 essentially stealing time that belongs to their company. In The Office, time theft is rampant. One episode shows Phyllis sitting at her desk knitting while Stanley is sleeping. Michael Scott, the office manager, says , “When I discovered YouTube, I didn’t work for 5 days. I did nothing.” Although the Office is an exaggerated example for most companies, time theft is a real problem and costs American companies more than $177 billion annually . Researchers suggest that bosses of companies can mitigate time theft by having work ethics discussions to change attitudes about time theft and enforcing punishments for those who engage in time theft. Michael Scott could benefit by hearing about this. When orienting new employees, he decides to throw out the traditional orientation manual and play his home-made video “Lazy Scranton” where he raps about sitting at his desk eating bacon and performing other non-work related activities. When a new employee asks Phyllis “when do people work?” and she replies “oh we find little times during the day.”
Cyberslacking, or using workplace technology to do non-workplace related tasks (such as browsing Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter), is a very common form of time theft in modern offices. While cyberslacking is commonly deemed unethical under all circumstances, some argue that a small amount of personal internet use is beneficial. Studies show that taking short breaks from work actually improves productivity in office settings. Employees who take occasional breaks to cyberslack may have relief from stress, boredom, and fatigue. Cyberslacking has been found to improve creativity and overall employee happiness. In many ways, cyberslacking is a new form of a "coffee-break" for office workers.
To reduce excessive cyberslacking, a mutual agreement should be made between employer and employee about what type and when cyberslacking is allowed and what kind is not professional. Some companies use surveillance to monitor what employees are doing online. If there is a high level of surveillance, a culture of distrust may form between the employer and employee, and this could decrease productivity. Therefore, a balance must be established between upper management and the employees about what is ethical correct with regards to cyberslacking time theft. In The Office, this agreement (between Michael Scott and the other employees) is that cyberslacking and time theft is okay in the workplace.
In 2011, 638 cases were filed where a whistleblower exposed some sort of corporate misconduct, and $2.8 billion was recovered from previous claims.
Whistleblowers may be seen as selfless martyrs by some, but others may refer to them as snitches, a word with strong negative connotations. Whistleblowers are protected under law from employer retaliation, but there are still many cases where punishment has occurred such as termination, suspension, demotion, wage loss, or just harsh mistreatment by other employees.  According to research, two thirds of whistle blowers “lost their job or were forced to retire” and “were blacklisted from getting another job in their ﬁeld.” Consequently, these individuals also had severe ﬁnancial problems. Moreover, 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".
On Episode 503, Holly, the HR rep, conducts a business ethics workshop using an instructive binder given by corporate. During the meeting, Michael thinks the binder is boring and unhelpful, so instead he changes up the pace by telling everyone to admit times they have acted unethically and promises immunity from being punished. 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 then everyone distrusts her. Michael becomes bitter and acts cruel towards Holly.
Holly: “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. I should know because in middle school, I was the hall monitor. Kids used to stuff egg salad in my locker. I was just hoping middle school was over.”
Corporate's response to Holly's Whistleblowing is: “We're not sure circumstances warrant any action.”
Corporate says that ethical problem is in a grey area and concludes that, because they are going through tough times, it is not in their best interest to turn their noses up at a discount.
Michael: “How do you tell someone you care about deeply, ‘I told you so.’ Gently with a rose? In a funny way, like it’s a hilarious joke? Or do you just let it go cause saying it will make things worse? .... Probably the funny way.”
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 real workplace environments, Whistle blowers are crucial in preventing fraud and helping companies act ethically. So, the attitude towards whistleblowers must be changed within a professional environment because they are vitally important.
Throughout The Office there are several examples of stealing. Most times the perpetrator is the character named Creed. In Branch Closing when rumors float around that the local branch is closing, Creed is seen selling a printer and a CPU belonging to the office for a few hundred dollars. Another time 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 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 dollars from Pacific Northwest. 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 need to be proactive. Companies can set up a system for employees to tip off cases of theft and follow up on the tips. 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.
Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
Sexual Harassment and Discrimination are real ethical and professional concerns that occur in professional environments and in The Office. Gay Witch Hunt provides an exemplary example into professional ethics. In this episode, Michael Scott find 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 with the newly created office atmosphere. Michael Scott tries to show Oscar that he is "okay" with Oscar being gay by watching gay porn in front of Oscar. This "I'm-okay-with-this" behavior ultimately culminates in Michael Scott kissing Oscar.
Three more episodes call into question the ethical behavior of the employees on The Office.
- 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.
Although the kiss scene and some of the other scenes are funny, they bring up an important professional ethics question about sexual harassment and discrimination. Is it okay that Oscar (or anyone) is treated differently because he is homosexual (or because of other factors)? Of course it is not! In the office, upper management gives Oscar a three months paid vacation and use of a company car in exchange for not suing Dunder Mifflin. This is a clear admittance on Dunder Mifflin's part that what Michael did was professionally and ethically wrong. In the real work, lawsuit 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 they yielded a Monetary Benefit of $52.3 million (and this amount didn't include momentary benefits obtained through litigation) . Therefore, it is in the best interest of the individual and the company that people behave ethically and not participate or allow sexual harassment or discrimination. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, 37% of LGBT individuals experienced employment discrimination between 1996 and 1997. Sexual harassment and discrimination are serious problems that occur in work-place environments and it is clear that such actions are not in accordance with professional ethics. Furthermore, discrimination in the work place due to sexual orientation has been shows to decrease productivity.  So having a open, accepting, and diverse office culture is beneficial for the company, helps individual productivity, and encourages the sharing of a diverse range of ideas.
Safety in the workplace
There are many ways accidents can occur in a business office that can lead to injuries and fatalities. The most common are fires, electrical shocks, and physical hazards such as falling down stairways, tripping over desk drawers, or straining one’s back by improperly lifting heavy materials. It is a business’s ethical responsibility to provide a safe work environment for its employees, and employees are expected to act in accordance to safety laws and the business’s instructions in order to prevent endangering their coworkers’ lives. On The Office, some employees think they are above the law or just do not pay any mind to normal safety regulations.
Dwight: "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 Stress Relief the fire alarm goes off and Michael pushes coworkers out of the way to escape and save himself. Michael later allows Dwight to go back into the office to look for his cell phone, and then when he realizes it was in his pocket the entire time. Dwight returns coughing from the smoke.
On The Fire 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 with their lives by throwing chairs into windows, crawling through air ducts, and breaking equipment without any regard as they believe the office will be burnt to the ground. Dwight then explains that it was just a drill, but Stanley is already overwhelmed from the stress and has a heart attack.
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- Moorthy, K., Seetharaman, A., Somasundaram, N., Gopalan, M. (2009). Preventing Employee Theft and Fraud. European Journal of Social Sciences. 12(2):259-268
- 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
- Anitei, S. Gays' Discrimination at the Workplace Decreases Productivity. 2007. SoftPedia.com. http://news.softpedia.com/news/Gays-039-Work-Discrimination-Decreases-Productivity-70002.shtml
- Office Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2012, from Rice: http://safety.rice.edu/office%20safety.htm