Business ethics are an almost daily topic in the news, in business schools, in the workplace and in our homes. I pay close attention to business ethics and what is written about them in my daily life as a strategic thinking, planning and business coach. I am still astounded at the remarks of major corporations a few years ago when they said they “waived or suspended” the ethics code or requirements. I am still at a total loss at how anyone can “suspend or waive” ethics.
While I may not be able to explain the suspension or waiving of ethics, I do hope to provide some solid advice on what business and other organizations need to do today to present, preserve and promote ethics in their organizations. Here are ten action items I would recommend:
1. Present ethical behavior as a requirement, not an option. Major business corporations are standing trial, literally and figuratively, for very strong violations of ethics. Acting unethically means that eventually you will be caught. Today is a very opportune time to take advantage of the current business environment to present ethical behavior as a requirement, not an option.
2. Present ethics in all daily interactions with internal and external stakeholders. Unfortunately too many people perceive that ethics only need to be presented to “bad” companies that need to reform. Well, my experience indicates just the opposite. Companies with strong track records of ethical, responsible behavior have the most to gain from a well thought out system to assure the cultivating of ethical corporate culture. Every action by every employee in an ethical culture will reinforce and further the company’s positive reputation.
3. Present the desired ethical behavior in an ethics code of conduct. Ethical conduct of each employee must become a habit of every minute of every hour of every day. No exceptions, no waivers and no suspensions of the ethics code!
4. Preserve ethics to let everyone know ethics is here to stay. While there may be “newcomers” to embracing ethics in business, ethical and responsible conduct have always been the standard at many companies. Even when ethical conduct may fail to improve the bottom line as strongly as desired, the alternative of operating unethically is not a viable option. This commitment will preserve and extend the reputation that has been earned through consistent ethical conduct over time.
5. Preserve an ethical culture that serves as a foundation. If you are not put to a test, then it is easy to say you act ethically. However, what do you do when you are faced with the tough ethical decisions? A very positive affirmation that your ethics program is a success is when there is an embedded culture where people will make the right choices, even when those choices are difficult, inconvenient, or adverse to the short-term interests of the individual or company.
6. Preserve an ethical culture that perpetuates ethics. Consistent compliance with a strong code of ethical conduct will be a major stimulus to having ethics become self-perpetuating. A reversal of behaviors will also occur in that those who speak out against unethical behavior will be the majority, instead of the majority being those who simply ignore and do nothing when they observe unethical behavior. A true ethical culture will evolve into a self-regulating basis on a peer-to-peer level.
7. Promote ethics and their benefits. Too many companies will always look at the cost of something, without looking at the benefits. The same goes for ethics. Too many companies sadly will only look at embracing and enforcing a code of ethics in terms of what it costs, rather than the benefits it will gain. Ethical behavior and a culture of ethics will result in many benefits, including: improved employee relations, enhanced worker productivity, positive morale and an enhanced company image.
8. Promote ethics from the top. If you read Greek history and mythology, you may have come across a well-known Greek saying that a fish rots from the head. In today’s business world, the saying is applicable. The message, spoken and unspoken, from the top is critical to reinforcing positive, responsible, ethical conduct. If top executives and top executive management say one thing but do another, the message of ethical behavior gets very confusing. Top executives need to use their positions in the company to insist on and promote ethical conduct. The top executives must “walk the talk” and hold themselves to the same high standards of ethics they expect of others and demonstrate those high standards in everything they say and do.
9. Promote a company culture where ethics is for everybody. Ethics is not just reserved for your management. It is for everyone, every day. Everyone in your company needs to be trained and persuaded to act ethically. No exceptions!
10. Present, preserve and promote ethics by rewarding ethical behavior. Develop a compensation system that provides a component of benefits and rewards for ethical behavior integrated with performance-based incentives. People who consistently demonstrate they are driven by ethical behavior need to be recognized and celebrated. There must be a clear connection between ethical conduct and potential career advancement. The consequences of a person’s unethical behavior need to be discussed immediately and be accompanied by an alteration to their career advancement within the company.