When it comes to ethics and values, what should change, differ or stay the same?

Regular reports of ethical scandals provide a clear reminder of why businesses should be ethical. The focus on workplace ethics is nonetheless often eroded or deflected by different views and opinions.

Two such views are that ethics and values differ for different people and that ethics and values should change to changing circumstances. These points of view warrant being addressed because they can be harmful as they can undermine the pursuit of an ethical culture and deflect the effective implementation of workplace ethics initiatives.

Are ethics and values different for different people?

Ideally, personal and organisational values should be aligned as they represent a primary basis for ethical behaviour and decision making. But personal values can differ widely as they are affected by a great variety of factors including upbringing and education – and they can therefore clash with the organisation’s values. Despite different values being held, it is not only appropriate but essential that in the workplace the organisation espouses a set of values that reflects what is acceptable in that environment.

An employee may have grown up in circumstances that condoned dishonesty, or in which it was acceptable to be rude to others. However, such a background does not make this sort of behaviour acceptable at work. The values in the workplace are not a means for accommodating the full spectrum of values – from impeccable to appalling – amongst employees and stakeholders. They serve, instead, to define the criteria and standards by which an organisation strives to operate.

What can differ is the way the values manifest themselves in practice, a good example being the value of respect. While respect would undoubtedly enjoy overwhelming support from most organisations and individuals, people differ in the way they express it. For example, is it respectful to look at one’s superior directly when being addressed or should one lower one’s eyes? The answer depends on factors that include the prevailing culture. The key issue is to expose and explore the differences as a route to achieving agreement on what is appropriate within the context, goals and environment of the organisation.

Should ethics and values be changeable?

The view that ethics and values are situational and should change for changing circumstances can weaken an organisation’s focus on ethics if applied to the organisation’s moral values. But change may be relevant for business values.

Distinguishing between business and moral values is therefore important. In most organisations, values such as honesty, integrity, fairness, and respect are included in a code of values. Among their values, many businesses also acknowledge criteria such as innovation, valuing their people and customer service. While such attributes are valid organisational goals or operational practices aimed at optimizing the organisation’s operations, products and services, they are business values rather than moral ones.

Being the least innovative person in the company, for example, doesn’t make one unethical. Business values may thus change or need to be modified in response to an altered business environment. A business goal such as being innovative, for instance, could over time become less of a priority than customer service.

Moral values, on the other hand, should remain constantly applicable. The view that moral values can also change is valid if that change entails improvement. If the change suggests that the value is no longer applicable, however, this suggests, by definition, that the value can be viewed as temporary. By way of a test, consider which of the following values are changeable in the sense of being only temporarily applicable: fairness? honesty? respect?

Should an organisation, for example, practise honesty only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays? The question seems absurd. The answer, of course, is that moral values should be practised all the time. The constancy of an organisation’s values reflects one of the key roles that values can and should fulfil in a business, namely that of providing a foundation or touchstone that guides behaviour and serves as an anchor in times of change.

Creating a common understanding of these views and including them as topics for discussion can form a valuable part of an organisation’s ethics initiatives. This can both increase the level of ethical awareness (an important ethical driver) and build a deeper understanding of business ethics. As always though, it will rest on leadership commitment and the proactive, effective management of workplace ethics.

By Cynthia Schoeman

Published in HR Future, September issue.