Does your business or your organization have ethics policies? Some do, but many policies are not written down. Executives and boards somehow think that people just “know” what the ethical standards are for their enterprise. They are in the “genes and chromosomes” of the work. There also is the assumption that there are shared values that guide the choices and behaviors of employees and their business transactions.
Sadly, as we know too well, ethics can be sort of “slippery” when it comes to making difficult decisions or transcending personal preferences. In businesses, people can make shady deals that bring them personal benefit even if the company spends more than anticipated for products and services. In non-profits, treasurers might be tempted to take money from the charitable funds to feed a gambling habit or find “free money” for personal benefits. In the church, ministers and laypeople can engage in sexual misconduct because people are vulnerable, hurting and need help.
How can ethical standards be spelled out to all employees, volunteers and members in an enterprise? People need to know the core values of the organization and the key behaviors that carry them out. Or, from a negative point of view, people need to learn and know their limits so that they know about the lines and boundaries that they cannot cross without unhappy consequences.
In recent years, we have learned that we need to have defined ethical standards and that these standards need to be communicated to people in the organization. But we have to take another step to make these standards hold: we need to provide training in ethics so that people can experience—theoretically—the standards at work.
Each of us in leadership needs to assess where our organization or business is in ethical definitions—and where we want or need to be in our organizational life. Here’s an exercise: as a group, go through the statement of core values of the organization and identify where these values have been tested in the last year or two. If there is no such statement, here’s a different exercise. Think as a group about some of the difficult circumstances or troublesome behaviors that have surfaced in organizational life. What bottom-line values have guided the choices and decisions we have had to make?
These conversations can be the start of ethics training. In my years of consulting, this sort of training never has been part of the human resources or employee development program in companies, organizations or churches. Again, few organizations have ethical statements or a set of expectations that a training program can support. As we enter the New Year, these may be some of the more important parts of doing business honestly and without question.
Recently, at the community college level, there has been some dispute regarding the requirement from the state of Illinois regarding ethics policies. The State Officials and Employees Training Act presents clear ethical rules for state officials and employees, and also for municipal governments and school districts. Community college officials say that, since they are regional and local agencies, they are not required to enact such policies. But ethical standards for employees—including faculty members—help to maintain trust in the institution.
At ag.state.il.us/government/ethics.html, there is more information about state standards for ethical practices in public office. They can be reworked to develop ethical standards for the workplace.
Developing ethical standards is not enough, however. Training also is necessary. I never imagined in my consulting work, for example, that I would have to provide training in sexual harassment prevention. But we learned together in workplaces that sexual harassment is a violation of personal safety for women and men. This training is one small example of training in ethical standards. We can provide similar training around core values of the organization, or ethical standards in financial and business dealings, racial and ethnic inclusion and a host of other issues.
Business and organizational leaders always will include ethical standards training in employee orientation, and in training or directing key business decisions and choices. A New Year is a great time to re-dedicate business practices to ethical excellence— and to provide sensible and solid ways for people to learn how to be ethical employees, not according to their own ethics, but to the values and standards of your organization. IBI