Ten Tips to Reinforce Ethical Behavior at Work

IBMadison.com asked Edgewood College professor Denis Collins, the author of Essentials of Business Ethics: Creating an Organization of High Integrity and Superior Performance, to give readers a synopsis of his best tips for creating an ethical workplace culture. Here are his thoughts:

Human beings, even those who tend to be very good, are nonetheless morally imperfect. Some moral imperfections are cancerous and can destroy organizations. Designing organizations that reinforce ethics improves organizational performance because you attract high quality loyal employees and satisfied customers.

10 Tips to Do It

  1. Use an ethics screen for job candidates. Behavioral information can be obtained from resumes, reference checks, background checks, and integrity tests. Behavior is also a function of attitudes. The most reliable attitudinal survey scales for predicting ethical behavior measure conscientiousness, organizational citizenship behavior, social dominance, and bullying. Job candidates also should be interviewed about how they managed ethical dilemmas at their previous workplace, and given an opportunity to comment on any issues revealed from the behavioral information or attitudinal surveys.
  2. During orientation, expose new employees to the organization's Code of Ethics, Code of Conduct, and ethical decision making process. An organization's codes serve as its conscience and provide employees with a common ethical reference point. Reviewing a list of ethical questions helps to unveil the ethics of any work situation that arises.
  3. In the spirit of continuous improvement, require annual ethics and diversity training workshops for all employees. Document and praise ethical strengths and accomplishments, unveil weaknesses, and develop strategies for addressing those weaknesses. Diversity success stories should be praised, shortcomings discussed, and continuous improvement strategies developed. Commonalities among all diverse groups must be highlighted to help all employees feel part of a cohesive team experience. Ethics and diversity training help to further develop, and reinforce, a culture of trust.
  4. Establish an ethics reporting system, such as an ethics hotline, in which employees can confidentially raise ethical issues and receive ethical guidance. A failure in these internal communication systems can result in external whistleblowing, which is damaging for both the organization and the whistleblower.
  5. The most important ethics reference point is an employee's direct supervisor or manager. How a manager acts in response to an ethical issue has more influence on employee ethics than any stated policy or words of encouragement. The manager's words and actions must be aligned with the organization's Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct.
  6. The work unit's ethics should be reinforced through work goals and performance appraisals that reward ethical behaviors and punish unethical behaviors. Otherwise, hypocrisy and moral confusion develops. Work goals should be specific, measurable, aligned, time-bound, and challenging, yet attainable. Stretch goals can result in stretching the truth. Performance appraisals should document employee accomplishments and benchmark the distance an employee still needs to travel to become an ideal employee.
  7. An ethical organization is a community of people where every employee is treated with dignity and has a sense of organizational ownership and accountability. Team-based participatory management, where employees provide meaningful input in the organization's decision-making process, and share the financial gains associated with improved performance, creates a sense of ownership, communal experience, and accountability among employees.
  8. Ethical organizations place a high value on appropriately managing the earth's scarce resources and creating environmentally healthy workplaces for their employees. Managers can achieve superior environmental performance by creating an Environmental Management System (EMS) plan that documents relevant organizational procedures, conducting an environmental risk assessment, using the Natural Step (TNS) objectives to develop action plans, redesigning the product to achieve zero waste, operating in green buildings that have earned LEED certification, and developing performance indicators to measure continuous improvement, and reporting the results of these efforts.
  9. An ethical organization aspires to be a model citizen, joining other stakeholders in creating vibrant communities for the well-being of its employees and other residents. Companies can give nonprofit and community organizations money, products or services, and skills, and provide job opportunities for nontraditional employee populations. A systematic giving program would integrate all four areas. Employees should be involved in the company's outreach decision-making process.
  10. All of these ethics mechanisms require assessment and modifications based on feedback from those they affect. Managers should benchmark their organization's management of ethics to the best practices discussed in this essay.

The book is available at http://business.edgewood.edu/ethics. For more information, or to contact Denis Collins, e-mail him at dcollins@edgewood.edu.