It’s easy to talk about organizational values. It’s difficult to put those values into practice.
But it is critical. And it’s not just avoiding the epic downfalls of JP Morgan Chase or Enron. A variety of surveys have demonstrated that employees and consumers believe businesses have a responsibility to improve society, such as this American Marketing Society study. Here’s how to strengthen organizational culture through instilling strong ethics:
Many organizations simply set a policy and fire it off to employees. This virtually guarantees the policy will be ignored. This kind of action subtly expresses to employees that the ethics policy isn’t that important. It’s just another email to be deleted.
Instead, leaders need to make ethics part of the conversation. They need to explain how the company’s ethics policy is inextricably linked to the company’s mission. They need to go beyond “not doing anything wrong” and find ways for the company to improve the community.
Like many other problems in business, ethics is about communication. Consider creating an ethical behavior checklist, then educating employees on how it should be used. Instead of only incentivizing productivity or sales, reward employees who consistently demonstrate ethical behaviors.
Conversely, employees who fail to meet ethical expectations need to face consequences. Even small ethical lapses, though they may appear to be “no big deal,” need to be dealt with. In these cases, a private conversation with the employee may be all that’s needed. But when employees begin to notice that the company doesn’t take ethics seriously, they’ll view unethical behavior as acceptable.
Because HR is the first point of contact for potential and new employees, they can help set the tone for the entire organization. “They are — or should be — both guardians and champions of the ethical culture in their organizations,” Steven D. Olson, director of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility at Georgia State University in Atlanta, told the Society for Human Resource Management. HR professionals are uniquely situated because they hire, train, and evaluate employees to reinforce the company’s expectations for ethical behavior.
In instances where an employee comes forward to report unethical action, the burden is on the organization to protect the employee from retribution. This could include harassment from coworkers or demotion by an angry manager. This is perhaps the most important thing a company can do to show it takes ethical guidelines seriously.
Ethics is one area in which businesses can’t take a laissez-faire approach. Do so at your peril, as the stories that have dominated the headlines in recent years show.