Know your ethical status

Management theory has long held that if you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it. An example is your HIV status. Knowing your HIV status and monitoring it regularly is a central feature of the HIV/AIDS campaign, and many prominent South African leaders have supported this by publicising the results of their tests. This approach recognises that knowing your status allows you to act in specific response to the result, whether maintaining your safe behaviour to maintain a negative result, or seeking support and medication to best manage a positive result.

But, do you know the ethical status of your organisation? Consider, for example, that you would automatically assess the honesty, trustworthiness and reliability of the handyman you allow into your home, or of the garage doing your vehicle repair. If you were taking out new insurance cover, you would assess the company’s fairness. You would almost certainly notice if there was a gap between what the company said it would do and what it actually did if that applied, for example, to your medical aid claim. In other words, you would automatically be assessing their ethical status. So, too, do others assess your organisation’s ethical status.They assess it based on a myriad of factors – from press reports to what your employee said about the company or its leaders over the weekend. It includes how you treat your customers, suppliers and other stakeholder groups; whether there is a gap between what you say and do; and whether your values are lived or just framed on the wall And their assessment of your ethical status is important, because it affects your organisation either positively or negatively.

A positive assessment of your ethical status enhances the quality of your relationships with all your stakeholders – be it employee commitment or customer loyalty – and supports the recruitment and retention of top talent for employees and your board. Other positive results include easier access to capital, lower cost of capital and increased brand equity.

Ultimately, this adds up to a source of competitive advantage – a very valuable commodity in today’s economy. A negative assessment is, of course, very damaging on many fronts: for corporate reputations, for brand equity, for client retention and even for the ongoing operation of the business. And your negative ethical status will not be accorded any form of confidentiality. Quite the contrary – it may be considered newsworthy and widely shared. But, positive or negative, first you have to know your status. And not just for today – not just after the bribery or collusion charges have hit the press – but all the time, by regularly monitoring it.

You should know your ethical strengths, weaknesses or potential weaknesses, and what the most important ethical issues are that require your attention. And you should know what action to take to improve ethics in your organisation, and what you should prioritise. Then you have to act on those results, to either maintain or improve them. Action is not an optional extra. It is imperative. And it is a great solution to improving or rebuilding trust and confidence in your organisation.

Tackling ethics often seems like a very daunting task; an area where making a difference appears difficult. If you manage ethics proactively, it is not that difficult. However, if you are faced with repairing damage and rebuilding trust owing to an ethical failure, this will be a challenging task – but one that should not be avoided.

The Ethics Monitor is a web- based survey that measures the ethical status of organisations. The survey provides in-depth results to enable focused action in support of the effective management of workplace ethics. Persuading your key stakeholder groups to spend five minutes completing the survey may well be the best time investment you make, if it allows you to improve ethics in your workplace and achieve a positive ethical status.

Published in the WBS Journal, Issue 27
November 2011