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Working with the Ethically Challenged

One of the hardest things for an employee to do, no matter what their organizational level may be, is to tell the boss when she or he is wrong.

Pointing out when an ethical line has been (or could be) crossed should be made easier for employees. It shouldn’t be career suicide and it shouldn’t be terrifying.

  • Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky: Child abuse – sentencing pending
  • Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson: Résumé padding – resigned after brief tenure
  • Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn: Violated company policy by having a ‘close personal relationship’ with a female employee – resigned
  • HP CEO Mark Hurd: Sexual harassment – out-of-court settlement
  • Wal-Mart VP Thomas Coughlin: False expense accounts – guilty of federal wire-fraud and tax evasion
  • WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers: 11 billion dollar accounting fraud – 25 year prison term
  • Penn State President Graham Spanier: Did not report suspected child abuse – awaiting formal charges
The list is longer than space allows.

Most organizations have an Ethics statement or policy. It makes clear to employees, customers, and stockholders what the ethical standards and obligations of those who are employed will be.

Creating the Ethics statement or policy?  That’s easy.

Sounding the alarm when the behavior of someone in your organization is out of bounds? That’s not so easy.

How can a pivot be made in your organizational culture from one of looking the other way to shining a light on problems, with an eye toward solving them?

A recent surveyManaging Responsible Business: A Global Survey on Business Ethics, reported that while many respondents thought their organizations were ethical, 35% felt pressured to act unethically. 23% have seen conduct that violated ethics standards or policy. Of those, 69% reported it even though 26% who did report it thought it might brand them unfavorably in their organizations.

Ethical breeches run on a spectrum: at one end are ‘petite ethical breaches’ like taking a pen or a note pad from the office supply closet, or taking a vacation day as a sick day. At the other end are the headline-grabbing violations like bribery, dishonesty, leaking confidential information, and falsifying records. I’m guessing most unethical acts fall somewhere along the line in-between. Whether it’s petite or grand however, it’s still a lie or a theft. Being on the low end of the spectrum doesn’t remove it from the spectrum.

Most organizations oversimplify the role of ethics in their culture. It’s not just about publishing a statement that hangs on walls around the workplace and acting as a role model. That’s only a start.

The fact is that by the time someone is hired into a position, regardless of the job title, they are already adults with their own ideas, values, and beliefs. If you try to engage them in training programs and lectures that focus on ethics, many will think it is a waste of their time. But it’s important to your firm that you do.

In ethics programs you don’t want to preach, get all ‘touchy-feely,’ read in a monotone, or lecture about the law like an attorney. It doesn’t matter if your employees and colleagues are naïve, cynical, or bored with the topic (it’s in the news so much that some of the shock value can wear off).

Talking about ethical decisions is the first step to acting ethically. Take the steps that will keep this critical component of your organizational culture on the front burner:

Focus on the clear articulation of goals and outcomesand emphasize critical thinking and analysis. Forget about teaching rules and statutes. If these decisions were clear, there would be no need to discuss ethics – you’d just lay down the ‘law.’

Don’t lecture. Provide case studies, discussions, role plays or interactive exercises. Use video, famous scenes from television or movies, or bring in lawyers or whistle blowers. Add this topic to a meeting on a regular basis.

Keep it brief and to the point. Give examples and tell stories that invite analysis. Don’t bore them with court opinions, law review articles or anything overly wordy or erudite. Court cases are for attorneys – but stories are what grab people’s attention. “We’re over budget so we’re not going to do that second safety check” will invite other practical examples.

Ask questions that will reveal how someone thinks and avoid questions that can be answered by parroting back what has been read or previously stated. You want to know that people are grappling with ethical decisions, not just telling you what they think you want to hear. “A client invited me to a Ravens game to discuss what opportunities are coming up.”

Give people a chance to talk and be heard. Use small group discussions followed by a larger group de-brief. Don’t make it too lengthy a session or too large a group. While it may be easy to determine what is right in the clear light of the day after, the decision to act once something is determined to be unethical can be a struggle.

Keep it interesting. Relate examples that highlight the topic and what the outcomes were. Connect the issues to things that are relevant to what is going on in your organization.

Make time to talk about the issues. No matter how stimulating the role play or case study discussion is, leave plenty of time for discussions in the large groups and some provocative questions that challenge people. The point of bringing this topic to the table is to teach, learn, and increase awareness.

I often say that it’s a YouTube Twitterverse. What I mean by that is that it is all too easy to see your actions and words become very public, very quickly. Everyone can know: your family, your boss, the Board of Directors, your clients and customers, your colleagues, your employees and your community.

Taking discussions about ethics seriously and devoting time (repeatedly) to talking about outcomes, consequences, and facilitating those conversations can lead people to understand that ethical decisions in the workplace are a constant challenge – but also a responsibility. Talking about your expectations with regard to their importance sends one kind of message and not having the conversation sends a very different one.

Which message would you prefer to send to both your employees and your clients?

This entry was posted on Monday, September 10th, 2012 at 12:52 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.