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Corporate Ethics Programs: Inspiring the Workforce
by Bruce Hamm


Having a corporate ethics program is the hot new development in corporate management. Many companies are creating these programs, some to meet the requirements of the US Sentencing Commission; others realize that they can develop this tool to provide a substantial benefit to their company more than meeting some sense of insurance. In either case, making the program merely the cop on the beat or the ethics police leaves something critical out of the mix.

Compliance with rules merely obtains adherence to the letter of the rule or policy not the spirit of the rule or policy. The following statements both reflect the same premise but which do you find more inspiring?

  • Sexual harassment will not be tolerated at XYZ Company. Any substantiated example of sexual harassment will be disciplined up to and including discharge.

  • Respect is vital to our success at XYZ Company. We will strive to treat every person we encounter with the dignity they deserve.

The first is what some executives offer as a value for their company. In legal terms, policies must explicitly prohibit sexual harassment but is that the kind of statement you want if someone asks about your values? What about stating something positive about how others should be treated? Having legally significant statements in policies that prohibit sexual harassment are still important but having that kind of statement as a value does not seem appropriate nor does it seem inspiring.

Communicating the correct message is vital to achieving success when dealing with corporate values or ethics. These values need to engage employees in supporting and upholding them. The value statements need to touch the chord within the employees that will trigger their desire to do the right thing. Good companies know how to establish stretch goals. Here is one place where, paraphrasing Robert Browning, the reach of humanity must exceed its grasp. Setting goals that require some exertion of character cultivates people who can make difficult but principled decisions in all their activities.

Examples of weak communications exist. I worked for one company that had value statements for each division of the company. There were 23 value statements for my division, all a paragraph in length. The other divisions had a similar number and setup. Neither I, nor anyone I asked about them, were inspired to know these values intimately. They were far too complex.

Another company whose value statements I had the fortune to review has three simple values, identified by their main word concepts: Teamwork, Excellence and Leadership. These simple statements make it much more likely that, if asked, employees in the company can identify the values and tell you something about the way they are interpreted at that organization. The supporting sentences are short and to the point but speak volumes about how the company wants to be perceived and how it goes about earning its reputation. That company even went so far as to provide a graphic design for their values representing how each is interdependent on the others.

Actions speak much louder than words. Beside inspiring people with ideas, we need to inspire them with actions as well. The main criteria for this inspiration is to "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk". Having good statements does not ensure compliance when no one follows the statements as written. Enron had very good statements of values but does anyone really believe that they lived these values in their day-to-day business dealings? We show what our statements mean by how we act on them. We can do that by ensuring that our corporate leadership structure takes the point in applying the values we establish. Supporting the decisions based on the espoused values is critical to the values becoming a key factor in a company's success, especially when the decisions appear to run counter to other corporate goals.

Another way to act on the values is to publicly praise and reward actions that support the values. For example, imagine a line worker who recognizes a series of flaws in the brakes for a car. The values of her company support her stopping the production line to investigate a potentially disastrous situation should these brakes get out on the road. This line stoppage is going to create havoc with the production schedule and costs will rise. Should she be recognized publicly? I would argue yes, she should, if the company really wants others to take the initiative to apply the values as she did.

We should also examine the other side of this. Imagine a female worker reports that her new supervisor is touching her inappropriately. Everyone in corporate life recognizes this could be sexual harassment and the incident must be investigated thoroughly and discreetly. Let us further imagine that in this instance the supervisor's previous company allowed, as part of its culture, shoulder massages and back rubs to encourage an improved working relationship between its employees (despite the current climate and though it is not appropriate everywhere, there are legitimate working situations that support this kind of behavior). The supervisor is not intending to harass his employee but he has developed a habit of giving shoulder massages. There is nothing sexual about them. The supervisor needs to be instructed that this is not appropriate behavior at his new company but should he be publicly derided for his behavior? Not if the company wants to maintain everyone's dignity. His supervisor should instruct him to talk this out with his employees and make a statement that he will discontinue the practice and act according to his statement.

What about someone who has intentionally violated company policy or even gone so far as to break the law? Imagine an account representative who met an old college roommate, now working as a sales associate for a competitor. They talk about business before an appointment with a mutual potential client. Your account manager and his old roommate decide to split the sale with this potential client. Both will realize a profit as a result. The sale might have gone 100 percent to either sales person before the deal but now both companies will realize something out of this arrangement. For those who might not see the difficulty in this situation, both sales people have broken anti-trust laws. Does your sales person need to be made a public pariah? Does he need to be derided openly so the other employees will learn the appropriate lesson? Not if the company wants to maintain his dignity. Yes, the company needs to discipline him because he put the company in an awkward position but he does not need public disclosure to see a behavior change. The company should conduct training on this kind of behavior so other employees will not make the same mistake.

Discipline is an important part of ethics programs but discipline should not be equated to punishment. The original Latin word that discipline comes from is about teaching not punishing (re: disciple). Teaching ethical decision-making before employees determine courses of action is a critical element to the success of an ethics or value initiative. Yes, stern measures sometimes must be taken when someone violates company policy or the law, especially when they are reluctant to learn to correct their behavior. This does not mean that effects of a program should veer toward the negative. Ethics are about the positive behaviors we demonstrate with others. Ethics are about ensuring that our employees put our values to work.


The Author

Bruce Hamm

Bruce Hamm studied for the Catholic priesthood obtaining a BA in philosophy with an emphasis on ethics.  He has experience as a volunteer police officer.  He has over eight years in US Navy combat operations, coordinating a tactical data link between various battle group elements, controlling combat aircraft and instructing combat operations.  Then entering corporate management, Bruce conducted numerous workplace investigations, managed compliance for one employer and developed a Business Ethics program for another.  In 2001, he completed the “Managing Ethics in Organizations” Executive Development Course from the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College and the Ethics Officer Association.  Combining his practical understanding of how organizations work with his desire to create healthy corporate cultures, he earned an MBA in Organizational Effectiveness at Marylhurst University.  Bruce is now also an adjunct instructor with DeVry University Online teaching Business Ethics and other general business topics.  Bruce is WatchIT’s Business Ethics and Compliance, Subject Matter Expert.  With two other professionals, Bruce was instrumental in the formation and continuing development of The Greater Omaha Alliance for Business Ethics.  Contact Bruce at and visit

Many more articles in Ethics in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2003 by Bruce Hamm. All rights reserved.

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