Developing a formal code of ethics is an obvious way to communicate clearly what’s acceptable and what’s not. Yet words are one thing, and actions are another! Management style, character, procedures, and processes all send messages about what will and won’t be tolerated. Here are ten subtle signals you can look for to determine whether the unspoken messages in your workplace are leading decision-makers toward ethical or unethical decisions.
Employees feel respected and happy
Never underestimate the power of respect, happiness, and high personal worth as predictors of ethical behavior. Employees who feel respected, valued, and happy tend to select ethics over self-interest. The power of peer-to-peer acknowledgement builds shared accountability and responsibility.
Informal appreciation expressed as part of everyday working relationships conveys how valued someone is to the team and to the company, and happiness is made of meaningful work — feeling that you’re having a positive impact and contributing to a higher mission.
Relationships are built on trust
When the going gets tough, what happens in your company? Are you hard on employees, or do you focus on solutions? If you answered that you focus on solutions, you’re on the right track. When tough circumstances are faced by focusing on solutions rather than placing blame, you develop more trustworthy relationships. Such relationships foster creativity and encourage employees to take chances on finding solutions.
When employees don’t know what to trust, they look after their own self-interest, essentially denying you the benefit of their insight and creativity because sharing these things is too risky. Low-trust environments present a high risk to emotional and social safety. Taking the initiative or being creative is quite likely to be career-limiting move. Conforming is rewarded.
The focus is on collective achievement
Ethical decision-making is profoundly connected to accepting total responsibility for decisions, actions, and consequences. So if you want to know what a company truly values, pay attention to whether decision-making focuses on self-interest — profit at the expense of employees, customers, the local community, the environment, and so on — or on adding value in a long-term and broader sense.
In an ethical company, the company’s contribution extends to the well-being of its employees, its customers, and the communities it serves or operates in. It also includes care for the natural resources it relies on to create its product or service. When all are successful or cared for, no logical or emotional temptation exists to compromise ethics.
The right things are rewarded
More often than not, a company creates its own ethical breaches by rewarding the wrong things. Companies that pressure employees to get things done at any cost, punish whistleblowers or anyone who reports misconduct or illegal behavior, and ignore the value of people and the planet is just asking for ethical breaches.
Minimum compliance isn’t enough
Doing just enough to get by in the eyes of the regulators implies indifference. Being indifferent toward issues of an ethical nature can invade thinking until doing as little as possible replaces bold action. Leadership, done well, requires courage to boldly go where most companies dare not tread.
Companies that courageously venture into original methods of managing and conducting themselves without being told what to do by regulatory or societal demands are natural leaders, and their results are highly rewarded. They meet and exceed regulations.
Good character is important
The question that you should ask with every high-stakes decision is, “Who do I become as a result of this decision?” When the answer teeters between a person of good character and someone who’s leaning toward the dark side, the choice is career-defining. Character and integrity work hand-in-hand. When you add up the personal character of each employee, the sum indicates the overall character of a company.
In companies where everyone leads, everyone is held individually and collectively responsible and accountable for achieving results. There is no separation between superior and inferior or between boss, leader, and employee, although the labels may still be used.
Command-and-control management styles have a tendency, except in emergencies, to defer accountability to those in authority. Where autonomy is infused throughout the company’s cultural DNA, however, peers are accountable and responsible to peers, as well as to managers. An overall commitment to a code of ethics, written or implied, is ingrained in the company’s integrity.
Principles and values guide action
Principles and values can guide ethical decision-making when they are stated and shared. What principles and values do you use to guide and direct decisions in your company? Putting ethics into action demonstrates the company’s commitment to its principles and values.
(Principles are portable, serving to clarify confusion wherever it may exist or help a confused decision-maker regain clarity. Values specify what is important to the company — what it stands for and won’t stand for.)
Attention is given to workplace culture
As is often the case, you can learn about one thing by studying something else. Business cultures are like that. If you want to know what deeply entrenched, underlying beliefs guide your company, pay attention to the actions and behavior of your employees. Studying routine patterns on the surface gives you insight into your company’s core beliefs.
From a detached, objective viewpoint, look at the activities, actions, and the decisions your employees make. Particularly notice decisions that cycle back, showing up like a bad penny. Eventually, you’ll see repeating patterns. Ask “Why?” often enough, and you’ll identify the originating belief. Then you can decide whether it’s useful or not. The health of the workplace depends on a culture made up of up-to-date and useful beliefs.
Trust is the underlying value
Trust is the context for highly ethical decision-making. Trust gives employees the confidence to step back, see the big picture, make bold leaps of creativity, and work effectively with conflict. When trust is endemic, your employees don’t spend their energy and concentration on protecting themselves from risk of danger.
Use every crisis, every decision, and every failure to extend trust, compassion, and care into the decision-making environment. Ultimately, you’ll wind up building trust and an innately ethical decision-making environment.