Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Ethics of the Workplace

Sunday Morning Sermon - June 16 2013 

Recent events across business sectors on the globe do indicate the growing need for simple ethics programs to be implemented within human resources across all working environments. 

In Sri Lanka, very few organizations have formal ethics programs for their staff. They dont even think about the need to implement such an exercise and let their people have their way with each other, clients, vendors, and all other entities. 

Large multinational corporations, who use professional hiring techniques and interview processes, may choose to have some of these activities in place in order to generate a positive and decent culture within their own offices and branches.  

I remember, when I was attached to Citibank Colombo, as CIO in 1989/90, I was also given the roles of wearing the HR/Admin/Advertising caps since the Colombo branch did not have any budget for hiring separate executives for all these roles. It was an interesting experience that I enjoyed very much as opposed to the techie lifestyle that I was used to since 1970. It may not be surprising that the bank ended up having 4 internal marriages between staff members, all LBW, mainly because of the trying additional hours that were required for them to stay late into the night and complete the exhaustive days work.

Familiarity breeds babies, they say? 

During this era, I also had the privilege of introducing the concept of an Aptitude Test for all candidate hires in addition to group interviews that lasted just 15 minutes only. Worked very well across the table as the potential staffer had no option but to reveal himself/herself without being able to hide behind a mask. We never implemented any ethics program within the bank during that time but we were still able to inculcate some good values of behavior between all levels of staff for that short period of time, mainly due to the effective recruitment process that we deployed. 

The list of potential benefits linked to an effective ethics program may include the following:

  • Recruiting and retaining top-quality people
  • Fostering a more satisfying and productive working environment;
  • Building and sustaining the organization's reputation within the communities in which it operates
  • Maintaining the trust of all staff to ensure continued self-regulation
  • Legitimizing open discussion of ethical issues
  • Providing ethical guidance and resources for employees prior to making difficult decisions
  • Aligning the work efforts of staff with the organization’s broader mission and vision. 
Like most respected leaders, company executives would surely agree that high ethical standards are important within their organizations. But what does this mean in practice? What are the basic functions of an ethics program, and how can these programs lead to the kinds of benefits described above? 

Essentially, ethics programs are meant to affect how people think about and address ethical issues that arise while they are on the job. By providing employees with ethics standards, training, and resources to get advice, organizations seek to create a work environment where it’s okay for employees to acknowledge that they have an ethical dilemma, and resources are readily available to guide employees in working through such dilemmas before making critical decisions. 

“It’s fine to have a structure that tells people they need to report it when someone does something wrong,” says Ms Gretchen Winter, vice president of business practices at Baxter International, USA . “But that’s not the main reason to have an ethics program.” 
She believes that ethical guidelines, in the form of policies and practices, “give employees the basic tools they need to take informed risks on behalf of their organizations.” Her language is intentional. At a time when many organizations are embracing “risk-taking,” she points out that all executives should view ethics as more than a way to simply reduce risks. Rather, ethical guidelines benefit organizations by steering employees away from ethical risk-taking and into more productive and appropriate kinds of risk-taking. 
Winter notes that busy association executives have a choice: “They can either have employees come to them with every ethical decision, or they can give employees a framework to make many of these decisions themselves.” Executives who can trust their employees to do the latter will have more time and energy for other work.

“Ethics programs cannot prevent all misconduct from occurring,” says Ken Johnson, an ethics consultant and colleague at the Ethics Resource Center. “Even in the best-run and most ethical organizations, there are always a few employees who willfully break the rules.” 

In such cases, there is no substitute for clear procedures and sanctions. But the real function of an ethics program “is to allow basically good people to do the right thing and succeed.” According to Johnson, this is the essence of a healthy work environment. People need to be sensitive to ethical issues on the job, but they also must trust their organizations enough to raise them. 
Recent research show very encouraging feedback for organizations that are putting their efforts into workplace ethics. For example, employees have high expectations for ethics within their organizations. More than nine in 10 respondents say that they “expect their organizations to do what is right, not just what is profitable.” This finding suggests that most employees are not so cynical about ethics at work. This should be encouraging news for all executives pursuing ethics initiatives. Most recognize that the long-term success of any program requires the active support of employees. 

Findings also show that both formal ethics programs and informal ethics practices are related to key outcomes. Employees who work in organizations with ethics programs, who see their leaders and supervisors modeling ethical behavior, and who see values such as honesty, respect, and trust applied “frequently” at work generally report more positive experiences regarding a range of ethics outcomes that include the following:

·         Less pressure on employees to compromise ethics standards
·         Less observed misconduct at work
·         Greater willingness to report misconduct
·         Greater satisfaction with their organization’s response to misconduct they report
·         Greater overall satisfaction with their organizations
·         Greater likelihood of “feeling valued” by their organizations 

These findings tell executives that a more positive ethical environment is strongly linked to a focus on ethics programs, to ethical modeling by leaders and supervisors, and to the “frequent” practice of key values such as honesty, respect, and trust.
Importantly for company  executives, the relationships described above are even stronger among employees in transitioning organizations - those that have undergone a merger, acquisition, or restructuring within the last two years. The findings suggest that organizations and employees may draw the greatest benefits of ethics programs when times are toughest. However, this also means that the foundations for an ethics program need to be laid in good economic times when, ironically, some of the most valuable benefits of these programs may be least apparent. 

It may come as a surprise that some organizations are able to use their ethics programs as a recruiting tool, but , in reality, it shouldn’t. In many cases, the top-quality people you want to hire are those who are looking for more than a job - they want to feel good about their work and about the integrity of the organization they work for. 

The good reputation that an association maintains within its key communities is an immeasurable asset that executives naturally want to protect. Winter notes that a strong reputation is, in many ways, a natural outcome of a strong commitment to ethics at all organizational levels. Executives generally recognize that employees can either enhance or diminish that reputation through their daily decisions and interactions. They may not fully appreciate how an ethics program can give employees the tools to enhance that reputation. 
One consistent finding is that senior and middle managers in all types of organizations are more positive about workplace ethics than are lower-level employees. This suggests that executives may underestimate the importance of specific ethics issues and concerns facing employees. As a result, they also may fail to address these issues adequately within their organizations’ ethics programs. Thus, it is important for executives to include input from employees at lower levels in the development of ethics programs and to continue to solicit their input and feedback on a regular basis. 

Another finding strongly links pressures to compromise an organization’s ethics standards with employee observations of misconduct. 
Several employees who observe misconduct at work say they did not report it. There are many reasons why employees may decide not to raise ethical concerns or report misconduct they observe at work. Some believe that coworkers will see them as “snitches” if they report misconduct. 

Basically, there are a variety of practical reasons for company  executives to focus on workplace ethics and reliable data that support their efforts. The survey findings consistently link ethics programs and practices to more positive organizational outcomes (e.g., less pressure to compromise organizational standards and less frequently observed misconduct) and greater employee satisfaction. These data have direct implications for sustaining a productive work environment, attracting and keeping good employees, and maintaining the organization’s reputation among key stakeholders. 

Findings also identify ethics areas where organizations commonly encounter problems and suggest preventative actions. It would be naive to suggest that an emphasis on ethics will improve your work environment and solve your Company  problems overnight. But in many cases, a thoughtful and organized effort to target key ethics issues sends an important message. It tells employees that your organization is heading in a positive direction, one that is positive for them as individuals. 
Some people in an organization may have difficulty or be uncomfortable discussing these issues. Given these caveats, a valuable exercise for company  executives is to first ask, consider, and answer some key questions  as follows:- 

  • Why might good people in this organization do unethical things?
  • What are our organization’s values?
  • Have we adequately articulated these values internally and externally?
  • Does our organization have written ethics policies, procedures, or structures?
  • To whom is our organization accountable?
  • What do we mean by “success”?
  • Does the leadership of our organization support the idea of an ethical workplace?


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