A Publication of WTVP

When we celebrate Veterans Day November 11, we have an opportunity to thank the men and women who've given of themselves in the wars in which this country has been involved. It's so important to remember and acknowledge them and to understand that, right now, more people are becoming war veterans in the Iraq conflict.

The word "veteran" calls to mind a workplace version of those who've served for some time, endured many challenges, and responded to many different kinds of managers-some excellent and some very difficult. We sometimes talk about certain employees who've "earned medals" for perseverance in the line of workplace battles or challenges or had to make some tough decisions.

While it's less common than before to know workers who've been with the same employer for 30, 40, or 50 years, we do find people well established, for good or ill, in their positions even after just a few years. Whether they know it or not, these workplace veterans often make ethical choices in business matters out of habit or long-standing practice. Their decision-making on tough issues was formed most often from the written ethical guidelines or policies of the employer or from a strong-willed or charismatic manager or executive.

Sometimes, new managers or executives find a resistant workforce when it comes to the deeper matters of employer values or ethics. When challenged on their decision-making, they often say, "We've never done it that way before." These managers may discover there's a major difference between stated organizational values and operational values. That can cause some real conflict in a workplace.

A recent story in Business Week detailed some major changes occurring at Citigroup under its new executive, Charles Prince. The previous executive, Sanford Weill, allowed many questionable practices in investment services and mergers because he believed people were motivated by making as much money as they possibly could.

Prince now wants more focus on business values-which won't include making a pile of money. He's stated he wants to "internalize" a strong code of ethics around the world. He knows it'll take a while to implement this change of focus to core values in business decisions. It'll be a hard adjustment for Citigroup "veterans"-some of whom may end up leaving the company.

A crisis, a leadership change, or a regulatory shift can bring about ethical challenges to workplace veterans. The change process must include a review of values to clarify "how we do business around here," as well as new policies and procedures to make these ethical changes stick.

How can an employer challenge "the way we do things around here" and, in a time of change, develop or clarify a set of organizational and operational values? There are four steps to take.

  • Executive and managerial review. Executives and managers, even in smaller companies and organizations, have a key component in their work: leadership. One key element of leadership is definition and statement of organizational values. An executive/senior management retreat on reconciling organizational and operational values is time well spent because it can have an impact on every level of business decisions, market access, customer service, and community relations.
  • Case studies of difficult decisions. Managers can identify theoretical situations the company or organization could face or actual situations where good or poor decisions were made-with a review of results and consequences. These case studies can be passed along to supervisors and frontline workers with guidelines on how to account for decisions in the clarified value system. This review can unnerve workers who've been around for a while or those who come from other employers with very different working values. They might say, "We can't do it that way here." The manager can help them through a re-evaluation of the example. In the end, some workers may decide that they don't want to work in this new environment. It's too unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
  • Policies and procedures revisions. There are practical consequences as clarified values take hold in an employer, and these can challenge the workplace veterans. They may not like the new policies and procedures, and some may test them to see if they're for real. Managers need to be prepared to make new values stick.
  • Incentives and penalties. Finally, employers find the fastest way to begin changing veteran workers' understanding of workplace ethics and practices is to incentivize best practices (rewards in money, time, or recognition), or to penalize poor decisions and bad behavior. For some workplace veterans, the incentives and penalties may be the only way to reinforce new values as new hires work differently from the veterans.

Workplace veterans sometimes present major ethical challenges because they find it hard to change-especially at the most fundamental levels. Yet executives and managers have to reinforce the importance of values to good business, marketplace strength, and long-term financial health. IBI