The need to effectively manage workplace ethics is increasingly being recognised as an important leadership and business priority. Organisations strive to realize the benefits associated with an ethical workplace, while also avoiding or minimising the risks and costs of ethical failures. The approach adopted by businesses in this regard is, however, often inadequate to achieve this outcome. The primary cause of this lies in a lack of integration.

In pursuit of improving the management of ethics, organisations tend to identify and action a cluster of initiatives. While many of them may be relevant to the field of workplace ethics, the disjointed nature of the initiatives reflects a lack of integration which undermines achieving an optimal outcome. For example, the initiatives do not necessarily enhance, leverage or even relate to each other, with the result that the employees whom the company is trying to influence don’t recognise it as an integrated, coordinated ethics programme.

There are two essential prerequisites for such integration: clearly articulated ethics goals and an equally clear ethics strategy. Strategy is viewed in this instance not as a magic solution, but rather in its classic sense as a plan of coordinated actions designed to achieve a specific goal or goals.

Defining the company’s ethical goals is a crucial first step. While this should be a straightforward exercise, its importance warrants the attention of the organisation’s most senior leadership. This rests on the fact that the ethics goals will define not only the ethics strategy, but will also shape the organisation’s DNA – its values, culture, leadership style and behaviour.

The most significant goal, in my view, is to build and maintain an ethical culture. Given that culture amounts to “the way things are done here”, this actually entails guiding and shaping employees’ behaviour in favour of that which is right and acceptable. What specifically needs to be acknowledged is that employees almost always already know what is right or wrong, ethical or unethical and that they hold a wide range of divergent personal values. The consequent challenge for an organisation is therefore to build an acceptance of its values among its employees and to positively influence their behavioural choices within the context of the workplace.

An ethics strategy to realise this goal needs to be based on a proactive approach which embraces the on-going, regular management of ethics – as opposed to an ad-hoc, reactive approach, when action only occurs after the ethical problem has surfaced. A sound ethics strategy should include the following inter-related elements:

Ethical standards: The ethical standards of an organisation need to be clearly defined via the company’s values and rules, the latter in the form of a code of conduct and policies. To achieve integration the values need to identify the desired behavioural parameters that are translated into acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in the company’s code of conduct and supporting policies.

The role that leaders play is also very influential. They effectively set and entrench the ethical standards of the organisation by the extent to which they do or don’t live out the ethical standards in practice.

Ethical awareness: A high level of ethical awareness is a powerful way of impacting ethics.

An example which illustrates this well is visible policing: The security vehicle which patrols the neighbourhood may not result in many (or any) criminals being apprehended, but their regular presence serves to raise ethical awareness and, in so doing, acts as a deterrent to crime being committed in that area. So too can a high level of ethical awareness in the workplace realise the same outcome of reducing misconduct.

Ethical awareness can also promote ethical behaviour by providing a constant reminder of what is acceptable behaviour within the organisation. This is especially effective when the visible examples stem from the positive behaviour of the company’s leaders.

All the actions discussed in this article contribute to building and maintaining ethical awareness, as does hosting staff talks on ethics and including ethics as a topic at company conferences. In addition, two initiatives that are especially effective are ethics workshops and training and the assessment, monitoring and reporting of ethics.

Annual ethics training should be mandatory for all staff. Training can take different forms. This can include, for example, ethics as part of all new employees’ induction, conducting an annual ethics course on the company’s ethics policies (which can easily be done via a web-based programme) and providing employees with a customised ethics guide as a convenient reference document. Workshops on company-specific ethical challenges and dilemmas can add significant value. While this may not be feasible for all staff, it should be compulsory for all leaders and the company’s top talent.

Measuring, monitoring and reporting on ethics: This not only builds ethical awareness but represents an important facet of a sound ethics strategy as well.

The dictum that if you can’t measure something, you can’t manage may be an exaggeration – but it is certainly easier to manage something if you can measure it. This applies to ethics as much as any other area of a business, and perhaps even more so because ethics is often regarded as a bit intangible.

A comprehensive method to do this is to conduct an ethics survey such as the Ethics Monitor, which will identify and prioritise the most important issues requiring attention so as to improve the company’s ethics. The survey results will also provide an ethics report to meet the ethics reporting requirements of the Companies Act social and ethics committee and of King III.

The integrative value of the Ethics Monitor survey is that it serves as an effective “listening exercise” because it is based on the experiences and perceptions of all the company’s employees. Disclosure and action are the two catalysts to unlock the optimum return: employee trust and confidence are built by sharing the results and acting on them.

Operational ethics: The other element of a good ethics strategy is to ensure that ethics is incorporated into the organisation, beyond the ethical standards, measurement and reporting.

For example, ethical conduct and the company’s values can be included as criteria for the company’s performance management system. This can extend to ethical behaviour being a factor in nominations for employee of the month. A system such as an ethics hotline can be used as an additional reporting system (although it should be used wisely to ensure its effectiveness). Ethics should be a conscious guide for a remuneration committee, and HR should utilise appropriate procedures to check the CVs of all new applicants. Crucially, ethics should be included as an agenda item at all senior management and departmental meetings to ensure that business decisions, choices and strategies are aligned with and promote the company’s ethics.

What remains to ensure an effective, integrated approach to ethics is the leadership’s recognition of the importance of ethics and that the leadership of a company will act. Without leadership support ethics is likely only to amount to an illusion – something that is spoken about or heard of, but not a real feature of the organisation.