Integrated approach to ethics is crucial

Leaders must recognise the importance of ethics and be seen to do so.

The need to effectively manage workplace ethics is increasingly being recognised as an important leadership and business priority. Organisations strive to realise 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 which encompasses a plan of coordinated actions designed to achieve the ethics goals.

Defining the company’s ethics 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.

A sound ethics strategy to realise this goal should include the following four inter-related elements: ethical standards, ethical awareness, measuring, monitoring and reporting on ethics, and ethics in action.

Achieving integration warrants that, for example, the values and rules that define the ethical standards are related and echoed in leadership behaviour. The values should identify the desired behaviours, which are translated into acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in the company’s code of conduct and supporting policies.

Ethical awareness should be recognised as both a driver and a catalyst of ethical behaviour. Numerous actions contribute to building a sound level of ethical awareness such as hosting staff talks on ethics, including ethics as a topic at company conferences, and conducting regular ethics workshops and training.

Annual ethics training should be mandatory for all staff, not least because it can be used to bring the various elements of the company’s ethics together. Training initiatives can include running an annual refresher course on the company’s ethics policies (which can be done very easily via a web-based programme), providing employees with a customised ethics guide as a convenient reference document, and incorporating ethics as part of the company’s induction programme. Workshops on company-specific ethical challenges can add significant value. While this may not be feasible for all staff, it should be compulsory for leaders and the company’s top talent.

The integrative value of measuring and monitoring ethics 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 prerequisites to unlock the optimum return: employee trust and confidence are built by sharing the results and acting on them.

The other element of an integrated 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. Ethics should be a conscious guide for a remuneration committee, and HR should formally build ethics into their practices and procedures. Crucially, ethics should be included as an agenda item at executive and senior management 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.

By Cynthia Schoeman

Published in HR Future, February 2013