You Cannot Train Employees to Be Ethical
David Batstone on Ethics
Companies that lack integrity do not develop overnight. A series of small, subtle choices led them to their fate; each decision set the stage for the next, more corrosive act. For that reason I usually turn down offers to design an "ethical training" course for employees. Essentially, I don't believe that ethics can be taught. The problem actually lies in the company's culture, and how it encourages individuals to consider deviant behavior as standard operating procedure. To change a corrupt culture, new disciplines have to be adopted and reinforced. It's vital to recognize that individuals do not need additional information or outside training to grow their integrity. The answer already lies within them; it just needs nurturing. I had the pleasure of spending some time this past week with Dr. Jack Gilbert, President of New Page Consulting, a San Diego-based firm focused on organizational integrity and ethics. We both took part in a happening pulled together by the good folks at Criterion Consulting. Dr. Jack has taken considerable care to study the dynamics of decision-making within organizations of all sizes. His research points to five key cultural disciplines that move a company toward more ethical wisdom. Because they go beyond compliance, codes of ethics, and ethics training, I'd like to name them here: Mindfulness - Individuals have an internal sensor that alerts them to wrongful decisions. It is a private voice that makes us feel uncomfortable when our integrity is at risk. But they often choose to turn that sensor "off" once they fall for the "everybody does it" rationalization. Jack argues that companies grow integrity once they encourage their employees to put discomfort on the table, even if the warning signals are weak. Voice - This next discipline brings mindfulness into the public conversation. A 2003 study conducted by the Ethics Research Center uncovered that workers do not raise ethical issues on the job for two main reasons: 1) They fear personal retaliation; and 2) they are convinced that senior management won't do anything about an ethical problem once it is brought to their attention. In that light, "voice" only becomes heard in an organization once its leaders reward employees for speaking up. Jack laments the typical response to someone who raises a red flag: "So, do you have a better solution?" That should not matter, says Jack. A healthy organization can accept authentic self-scrutiny as the first step in looking for a better path. Relationship - Ethical dilemmas are best addressed as colleagues, not as critics. If mindfulness is the antithesis of ignorance, Jack suggests that respect is the antithesis of being judgmental. When we respect our colleagues and approach each other with generosity, we can more easily address tough issues. The key is to stay fact-based and avoid blame-based accusations. Ethical breaches often are allowed to exist because "they aren't being done in my backyard." Respectful relationships allow us to move across functional silos in an organization and see ourselves as part of the problem as well as the solution. Tenacity - As I already noted, the erosion of integrity rarely transpires in big, black-and-white decisions. The cracks in one's character begin with a poor discernment between what is the right thing to do and the less right thing to do. Once we "get away" with the less right thing, we then are tempted to move on to even bolder shades of gray. It takes tenacity to take on difficult conversations - where the tools of denial, defensiveness, and even anger are at work - and stay undaunted in the quest for ethical action. Legacy - Leaders can be especially influential in placing a firm's vision and values above results. It is very difficult for, say, a middle manager to always prioritize the long-term impact of the operation. But the leader can set a tone that prevents the culture from becoming consumed with short-term goals. A firm expresses the highest integrity once it weighs the future legacy of the company as a vital factor in each decision at hand. I cringe whenever I hear this self-defeating belief: "I don't expect ethical behavior at my company because it's not in the DNA of business." Not that I would expect ethical wisdom to be a genetic pre-disposition. As Jack outlines for us, integrity all comes down to practical disciplines that help organizations to leverage good sense and collective wisdom.