Practical Dialogue for an Ethical Workforce

Be prepared for the difficult conversations that are necessary to promote a culture of ethics

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on August 18th, 2011

Last week we posted a news item about a professor whose students conducted an ethics experiment on their classmates. The results of the experiment showed that the classmates who were reminded of a rule (not to cheat on exams) were less likely to cheat than those who were not reminded of the rule. The students who conducted the experiment concluded that reminders promote ethical behavior.

Ethics experts have been saying this all along, but judging by the number of corporate fraud cases in the news, people aren’t listening. Or it could be in the interpretation. “Remind people to be ethical” is a pretty broad instruction.

Making it Relevant

Talking about ethics in a general sense is probably not going to get employees to act ethically. Ethics is just too vague a term. Employees need concrete examples.

“Few people can actually tell you what ethics mean to them and, obviously, if you can’t tell an employee what you mean by acting ethically, there is no way you can effectively encourage and reinforce whatever your company happens to mean by ethical behavior,” writes ethics consultant and psychologist Chris Bauer in one of his Weekly Ethics Thoughts.

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Bauer suggests using easily understood concepts and equally easily observed behavioral examples of what constitutes ethical behavior. “Make sure that these examples are ones that employees can unerringly implement and that colleagues and supervisors alike can objectively observe so as to be able to provide feedback, coaching, etc, as needed,” he writes.

Harnessing the Opportunities

He says employers should talk less about ethics and more about the kinds of thinking and actions that the company believes best represent ethical behavior.

Opportunities for instilling ethics arise many times every day and by planning for them in advance employers, supervisors and managers can leverage bad situations into concrete examples of how the company expects its employees to act.

Below are some examples of situations in which an employer might face an ethical dilemma. Thinking about the best way to respond to these situations ahead of time will ensure you don’t miss a great opportunity to reinforce your ethics code when the need arises.

Be Ready to Say the Right Thing

Situation: In a meeting, an employee suggests posing as a customer for one of your competitors to find out how they are pitching their services in an area in which they are trouncing you. What do you say?

Situation: A new manager mentions that a close friend is the CEO of a powerful rating agency that surveys companies in your field. He offers to mention his new position to his friend to see if he can influence the ratings in your favor. Do you take him up on it?

Situation: One of your sales agents brings in the rate card from your biggest competitor. Is this in line with the way you want your company to do business?

Situation: An employee hands you a copy of the confidential agreement her husband’s company has just signed with your biggest competitor. Do you reject this valuable piece of information?

Situation: You receive a duplicate copy of a receipt your sales manager submitted for reimbursement, revealing that he changed the total on the original he submitted to get $50 extra back from the company. He’s an effective manager who makes you a lot of money. Do you challenge him on it?

How you handle these situations sends a clear message to your employees on the ethical culture of the company and your willingness to put what is right above the bottom line.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.