Walk into any fitness club this time of year and witness the phenomenon: What started on Jan. 1 as an unwavering commitment to get in shape has become a struggle to keep the momentum, if not an outright surrender. Gyms that were packed with people three weeks ago are starting to look deserted. For many people, fitness has lost ground to time and inertia.
Of course, a few display an exceptional level of perseverance. If you are a member of a gym, you likely know who they are; you notice “the new guy or girl” and remark at the willpower. Despite the temptation to stay home, these individuals push themselves to keep going. That determination will help them reach their goal of better fitness, weight loss, and improved health—and may inspire the other people in the fitness club, too.
Corporate executives can benefit from making a similar commitment to tone up their commitment to ethics in the workplace and, with determination, can achieve similar positive results. Vowing to better tend to ethics can result in improved organizational health, reduction of misconduct, and a stronger organizational culture. At this time of year when many resolutions begin to wane, I offer a few ideas you can use to keep toning up your ethics muscles.
Know your company values. Can you name your corporate standards for conduct without digging out the Code of Conduct? Fitness starts here. It is hard to operate in a manner consistent with company standards if you don’t know what they are. If you can’t remember the values, the odds are good that your employees can’t either. Start publicizing your values by printing them on letterhead, Web sites, emails, and company bulletin boards. Evaluate how projects and transactions fit with your values—and if they don’t, reconsider taking them on. Integrate values into every communication.
- Lead by example. We hear often that “tone at the top” is critical, and research shows that when it comes to creating an ethical company culture, specific conduct of managers and supervisors is more important than having a formal ethics program. Three “ethics-related actions” are especially vital: setting a good example, keeping promises and commitments, and supporting others in adhering to ethics standards. Remind yourself daily to perform these actions and explain to your employees that you are trying to do so.
- Demand accountability. Let one violation slide and you will find it that much harder to enforce it next time. Investigate all allegations of misconduct promptly, thoroughly, and as confidentially as possible, and be fair and consistent in discipline. Review your policies and procedures to make sure that they clearly define the ramifications of unethical or illegal conduct.
- Promote healthy working environments. Most companies abide by environmental, health, and safety regulations, but some forget that “relational health” can be just as important. Remember that ethics decisions affect other people. If the process is not clear, employees can end up feeling resentful, resigned or entangled in conflict, all of which can lead to mistakes that violate standards and damage the company culture. Be alert to conflicts between employees and monitor their reactions to your directives. Research the conflict- and stress-reduction programs available to your organization, and make use of them. Show employees that you care by recognizing the consequences of your decisions and creating appropriate avenues for conflict resolution.
- Condemn the conduct, not the person or the entity. Always show respect for employees, directors, customers, contractors, competitors, and others with whom you conduct business, regardless of their behavior. If a customer or a competitor has done something dastardly, take the high road. Instead of publicly debasing a violator, consider using examples of unethical or illegal conduct in other companies to educate your staff about good decision-making.
- Encourage transparency. Trust your employees with information about organizational change. Providing accurate, timely information not only helps employees prepare for and participate in change, it can shut down the rumor mill. Commit to being open and honest in your business dealings, without disclosing confidential or proprietary information.
It is hard to operate in a manner consistent with company standards if you don’t know what they are. If you can’t remember the values, the odds are good that your employees can’t either.
- Identify the ethics issues that your employees face. You might be surprised by what your employees will tell you they think about your conduct as a leader, especially if they can give feedback confidentially and believe you genuinely want to improve. Encourage your organization to conduct a baseline survey if you have never done one, or update your findings with a new survey. Consider implementing an annual or bi-annual survey to evaluate your overall ethics and compliance program.
- Improve your communications. The best-designed organizational ethics program can fail if it is not communicated clearly and continually throughout the organization. This means you! Most managers assume that their commitment to ethics is obvious, but employees often don’t see things the same way you do. Talk about your commitment to ethics and ask employees to hold you and each other accountable. Work one of your corporate values into your discussions with employees each day.
- Contribute to your community. Get involved with community organizations and encourage the corporation to donate time, products, or goods to relevant causes. Not only will you engender good will in the community, your employees will feel good about their leader acting in a socially responsible manner. Consider implementing a “community involvement day” where individuals or the entire company get a day off to work on a civic, charitable, or community project (but never force anyone to participate).
As with a personal health plan, the ethics fitness plan works best when you choose the exercises that work well for your organization and implement them a little at a time. Similarly, you may find it easier to stick to your plan if you enlist the support of those around you. Involving your employees in your ethics-improvement plan not only demonstrates your commitment to having an ethics program that works for your organization, but also empowers them to be shareholders in your corporate ethics identity. And as with any muscle-building activity, repetition is essential. Your ethics will grow with your perseverance and practice.