It’s no secret that confidence in our institutions – whether business or government – is at an all-time low, driven in large measure by frustration with unethical, unlawful and even immoral behaviors on the part of institutional leaders.
This isn’t a situation we should tolerate. As we hear so often, “we’re better than this.” I believe we really are better than this and that we can begin to turn the tide by returning to our ethical roots. My definition of ethical leadership is a simple one I learned from my father. It’s “doing the right thing for the right reason (even if no one is watching).” Here are eight ways I think we can integrate that philosophy within our workplaces.
- Lead the way: Ethical leaders set the example for employees, explain the rationale for their actions and reiterate the importance of their approach. Or, as our vice president of HR says, “leaders set the battle cry.” They lead by example and inspire others to hold those standards.
- Don’t sacrifice ethics for profits: Here’s another valuable lesson I learned from my father: do the right thing even though it may not be the most profitable way of doing business. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
- Internalize ethical behaviors: Our marketing vice president has led the way in making our company values (which we call brand pillars) easy to understand and significant. Our brand absolutely reflects our ethical philosophy and is an important part of our onboarding and ongoing communication processes. My observation is that far too many organizations look at their brand solely as a marketing tool, rather than a behavioral roadmap.
- Hire the right people: Ethical behavior isn’t something you can teach. During the interview process, ask open ended core value questions, such as “What is most important to you in a leader or employer?” The applicant who focuses on salary, benefits and hours rather than values-driven behaviors will not be a good fit in an ethical organization.
- Group dynamics can affect behaviors: Many employees will emulate what they perceive to be successful organizational behaviors. Some may “test the waters” to see how far they can push, so it’s doubly important to identify the people with negative and unethical attitudes and behaviors. If not, their negativity will spread. On the flip side, peer pressure can work in a positive way. It’s up to leaders to harness peer pressure to reinforce positive behaviors.
- Nip unethical behaviors in the bud: Do you remember the story about the bank employees who opened unauthorized client accounts? It’s a good lesson on how unethical practices can start on a small scale, then grow incrementally until people realize their moral compass has gone askew. Establishing a culture of trust encourages employees to stand up and question unethical practices, resulting in better personal and organizational outcomes.
- Go well beyond the letter of the law: Following just the letter of the law is setting the bar way too low, and encouraging employees to do the same. Laws are imperfect because the people who write them are imperfect. Knowing the reason behind the law allows the leader to focus on the spirit of the law. For example, minimum wage laws were originally created to support what was then considered a living wage. For most, that’s no longer the case. The employer who sees the minimum wage as the standard is ignoring the human element behind the law’s creation.
- Seek and find ethical role models: I am fortunate to have had my father and grandfather as role models, both personally and professionally. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve added a number of other executives whose humility, approachability and respect for peers and employees inspire me.
Acting with integrity and authenticity shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s up to us to make it the norm, rather than an anomaly, in our workplaces.