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How Can I Ensure that Ethics and Integrity aren’t Just Values Listed on a Sheet of Paper?

You need to consider values like ethics and integrity like goals critical to your organization’s success. More important, you need to translate those values into behaviors—your own and those of your employees. This makes them more than words strung together, particularly if you incorporate the behaviors tied to the values into performance evaluations.

Since your employees won’t practice any of your company’s values if they don’t know why they are critical to their company’s competitive advantage, you need to make that clear to them. Further, there need to be positive consequences for employees who pursue the values. Those employees who practice the behaviors that support the corporate values need acknowledgement. If possible, promotions, raises, and bonuses should be tied to the practice of values.

Here are some specific steps you can take:

  1. Emphasize and discuss ethics on a continuing basis.
  2. Consider ethics and integrity during planning.
  3. Identify areas that are conducive to unethical practices.
  4. Encourage reporting of unethical activity.

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Those who fail to practice the values set—executives, managers, and employees alike—should not be rewarded. All the effort in communicating the values will mean little if in real terms they have negligible influence on how the organization behaves. After all, behavior doesn’t change if employees don’t see a benefit—a payoff.

Don’t forget to role model the values your organization has set. Your employees won’t support the values you promulgate if they don’t see you doing so.

When it comes to the values of ethics and integrity, in particular, you should:

Emphasize and discuss ethics on a continuing basis. Guidelines for solving ethical problems contained in the ethics code can be helpful, but including specific rules and regulations to meet every situation is impossible. Thus a code is primarily symbolic, indicating the importance a company places on ethical conduct. To maximize symbolism of the ethics code, it should be displayed prominently on desks and walls. But even more important, it should be discussed and analyzed on a continuing basis. Whenever questions and decisions concerning finances, quality, safety, and production are discussed, ethical considerations must be included.

Consider ethics and integrity during planning. Moral lapses occur when ethical views and concerns aren’t part of the discussion. Any goal-setting sessions—corporate, divisional or departmental—should stress ethics and make very clear that achievement of the goals at the expense of ethics will not be tolerated. Further, efforts to achieve goals should be monitored to ensure that there are no ethical corners cut to reach the goals set. Be available to staff so they know they can discuss problems that arise without fear of reprisal—and they aren’t tempted to do wrong.

Identify areas that are conducive to unethical practices. We’ve seen recent examples. But there are other areas in which unethical activities could happen: customer communications, safety, performance assessments and terminations, to name a few. What about your organization?

Encourage reporting of unethical activity. If the report is proven true, then prompt action should be taken and the misconduct should be publicized for all to see. Little or no action sends a message to others that you really don’t take ethical conduct seriously, despite a well-written code of ethics. If an allegation is found to be overblown or a simple misunderstanding, the conclusion must be discussed with the individual who reported the perceived wrongdoing.