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Three Ways to Strengthen Everyday Ethical Decision-Making

So you have a code of ethics. And of course you have policies and procedures. And you know that they don't guarantee that people will act ethically in making sensitive decisions. So how do you work to make sure that everyday ethical decision-making is taking place in your company? Here are three ways to strengthen the role of ethics in everyday work, especially when values rub up against reality.

  1. Make the Role of Ethics a Regular Part of Leadership Discussions

    In most leadership discussions, the dominant subject is progress towards financial goals. This is no surprise given the pressure for cost control, revenue generation and profits. But we also know that what leaders talk about gets attention and what they don't talk about becomes, at best, low priority. Devoting time to discussion of real-life ethical issues will get fundamental questions about the company's values on the table and clarify them.

    For example, “What freedom do those working here have to challenge a superior?” or “Can I reject revenue opportunities on the basis of ethical doubts without hurting my career or losing my job?” or “Do we as leaders speak and act in different ways: talking about values but turning a blind eye when a successful or needed employee, or someone we like, acts contrary to those values?”

    The shared understanding that emerges from these conversations will make for clearly articulated values throughout the company that extend beyond rhetoric into the everyday life of the business.

  2. Understand the Nature of Unethical Acts and the Myth of the Bad Apple

    A press release from Public Agenda discussed the views of citizens and business leaders on business ethics. For their part, business leaders were especially concerned that the actions of a few bad apples damage the reputation of the vast majority of honest and ethical executives. In other words, get rid of the bad apples and all will be well. I disagree.

    No doubt there are bad actors in corporate America at all levels. And they should be rooted out. But to assume that they are the fundamental problem is to miss the point. Gross unethical acts do not happen out of thin air. They are typically the result of an accumulation of small, almost unnoticeable steps that weaken ethical conduct just a little bit at a time, each step making the next larger unethical step permissible. Gross unethical acts are commonly the result of ethical erosion, and decent people doing their best, not just bad apples, are vulnerable to it.

    A graphic example of this is the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Diane Vaughan, who wrote an analysis of decision-making leading up to the disaster, wrote that “small changes (in safety and quality standards) — new behaviors that were slight deviations from the normal course of events — gradually became the norm, providing the basis for accepting additional deviance… the responsible organizations proceeded as if nothing was wrong in the face of evidence that something was wrong.” Nobody wanted Challenger to explode, killing its crew. There were no bad apples. But there was erosion and it led to a disaster.

    To quote a senior executive talking about ethics in business, “Very few of us are evil at our core. If you're evil at your core, you'll cross the line. I think what's really going on is that you're just eroding your values over time, and you don't know you're doing that. I mean, at some point in time, it's like obesity. When do you realize you're fat?”

  3. Implement Processes and Structures That Support an Ethical Environment and Open Communication

    If you want to strengthen the role of ethics in decision-making, then you had better find ways to stop erosion of ethical standards.

Do your incentive and performance- appraisal programs match your expectations for ethical behavior? Any of us who have been around for a while are familiar with the following scenario. An employee who excels at generating business but who is considered by peers to be reckless in making client promises seems bulletproof to criticism or negative consequences for their unethical actions. That tells your people, who are already watching your actions, not following your words, that in your company money beats values hands down. And they will be smart enough to act accordingly.

If you want to attack ethical erosion directly, you need a culture where people can speak freely when they encounter ethical dilemmas. It is companies that encourage every employee to have a voice, that are good at surfacing problems quickly so they can be understood and resolved with a focus on moving forward and not on blame, and that always want to learn how to do things better, that are likely to have strong everyday ethics. Not hearing about ethical dilemmas doesn't make them go away. It drives them underground where you can't resolve them or reduce your exposure to unethical acts.

You also need to hear the weak signals of ethical erosion. For that to happen, your people need to have the freedom to express their discomfort with a decision when they may feel nothing more than a gut reaction. Those gut reactions are important. And you won't hear them if someone who has doubts is afraid to speak up for fear that they will slow down a meeting that nobody wants to be in anyway, for fear of being criticized for not being a team player by not going along, or for fear that they will be discounted if they don't have a quick solution for the issue they are raising.

A Final Thought

There are no easy answers to some ethical situations. We may not even be choosing between right and wrong but between two rights (for example, the company's financial welfare and our values). But the struggle to decide well is worthwhile. Each of us wants to come home at the end of the day knowing we did our best and believing we make our living in a place where we don't have to park our values at the door when we come to work.

By making ethical behavior a leadership priority and by identifying and addressing everyday ethical dilemmas as quickly as possible with our colleagues, we can move closer to wholeness, which is another way of saying to organizational and personal integrity.

Jack Gilbert, Ed.D., president of New Page Consulting Inc., is a consultant, author and presenter on issues of leadership and ethics. Contact him at [email protected].

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