A Publication of WTVP

Does your business or organization have an ethics committee? Most don’t have committees or any kind of review function. When ethical dilemmas or decisions confront organizations, often the leader makes a judgment about what to do. Or, in the case of a nonprofit, the board has a long meeting and hashes out a resolution to the dilemma. Or the leader consults an attorney for advice.

Hospitals and other medical facilities have ethics review committees because they deal literally with life and death issues and because they must deal with licensing requirements. Few other types of organizations or companies are in this league, but it doesn’t make the challenges any less difficult.

For example, one high school’s athletic program received corporate sponsorship from a retailer in their community. Some parents and community leaders criticized the school board and the superintendent for the money from this retailer, who sold not only food, but alcohol and tobacco as well-the very things they wanted to keep away from the students. What kind of example does that set? Better to receive a sponsorship from a retailer that sold only food. Others challenged this point of view, asserting the retailer primarily sold food-and besides, many foods lead to obesity, a real problem among young people. Still others said the retailer was willing to support the school, so the money was welcome. The problem is yet to be resolved, and the community is divided.

In another setting, a company has a policy in place regarding gifts to employees. No employee may accept a gift that has more than a nominal value (under $25). But does that apply to incentive programs in which, if employees order a certain amount from a national supplier’s Web site, they accumulate points redeemable for merchandise at top-notch retailers? And what happens if the division leader is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of point accumulation? The nominal-gift policy arose from an ethical problem-employees feel indebted to a vendor who gave a gift to them and will channel business to the vendor even at higher cost. In the case of order points, how is the ethical matter resolved.

It’s one thing to have human resources policies in place, but quite another to deal with ethical issues on a larger scale. To do so requires three key elements. First, the organization has to have clearly articulated values in place. These core values need to be communicated to everyone in the organization, and employees and/or volunteers need to be trained in their use. Also, an organization’s leaders need to be sure core values are in sync with operational values.

Then, the corporate culture has to be transparent. Values certainly can provide a foundation for corporate culture, but it’s often the unspoken group norms, the way decisions are made and monitored, and how and when criticism and praise are delivered that communicate corporate culture. Is your organization a "loner" group? A "team" group? A "power" group?

Finally, the decision-making process has to be understood. Decisions revolve around more than operational issues. At what level does a decision or issue trigger a review? For many companies and some nonprofits, there’s a statistical benchmark that triggers a review in which benefits and liabilities are considered. But what happens when the issue is one of right or wrong to a greater or lesser degree?

Ethics committees can be of tremendous help in guiding employees and organization leaders in good decision-making at the policy level. They typically produce two or three pieces of work. First, after meeting and exploring company and division (or organizational component) norms and histories, they issue an ethics statement. Sometimes this is called a statement of operational principles. This statement is circulated to every employee and/or volunteer at any level of the operation and gives bottom-line guidance regarding behavioral and decisional boundaries.

Then, ethics committees engage in decision review. Whenever there’s a questionable decision or a tough call, the ethics committee thinks through the dynamics that contributed to the difficult choices. They can refine ethical standards or principles and provide training and guidance to supervisory and management personnel.

Finally, ethics committees participate in crisis management. If the organization faces a crisis with several tough options-each with real positives and negatives-the ethics committee can provide needed perspective so the organization can be true to itself and what it stands for.

Who should be on this ethics committee or panel? The executive officer or team should be on it, the person responsible for human resources, and the person responsible for technology application. Why this last person? Because the tech person can give guidance on how to communicate the ethical standards on the Web site and within the corporate or organizational network.

A good start for an ethics committee is a retreat where, if necessary, the values statement can be defined or refined, the individuals can reflect on some tough decisions in the previous 18 months, and they can develop strategies for ethics training in the workplace. In this way, an organization can be clear and thorough about its intent to practice "good" business. IBI