Defining And Communicating Ethics In Your Business

People devote entire college degrees, careers and spiritual practices to the topic of ethics — so you’ve got to be kidding if you think one article will get you up to speed on the subject, or absolve you of any ethical misgivings you might have.

The intention of this article is to begin a conversation about ever-so-critical issues and provide real-world tips to help you, your colleagues and employees communicate about ethics in an ethical forum. Why bother? By all means, don’t, unless you believe that what goes around ultimately comes back around. If you believe in the cyclical nature of intention and effort, checking in on ethics-related beliefs and behaviors can be an enriching and focusing tool for your group. This article contains the following sections:

  • What does it mean to be ethical?
  • Our ethical foundation and examples of ethics
  • Tips for communicating organizational codes of ethics

What is it to be ethical?

To us at IVC, ethics goes beyond the act of throwing money at a deserving charity if the primary intention is to reap the public relations perks, particularly if the ‘PR spin’ masks questionable organizational practices and behaviors. Using a broad definition from Webster’s Dictionary as a starting point, let’s assume for the moment that this is what we mean by ethics:

n. 1. A system of moral principles. 2. The branch or philosophy dealing with right and wrong and the morality of motives and ends.

From this definition alone, we can see how ethics is not a point set in time on the continuum of human life, which all people use as the same reference. What do we mean? Look at the words independent of the definition, and consider how each person creates his or her own ethical boundaries:

  • “moral principles” — Clearly, these differ from person to person; wars are predicated on these notions.
  • “philosophy” — a belief system or theory.
  • “right and wrong” — anyone with an opinion can attest to the disparities between two or more people in this arena!
  • “motives” — based on a specific situation, one person might differ from circumstance to circumstance.
  • “consequences” — a concept we at IVC add to this mix of ethics-related words, perceived consequences are often based on a fear of negative ramifications established through one’s religious or philosophical beliefs and/or the norms, mores and rules of one’s community.
    So, what is ethics? What is ethical behavior? From where we stand, it’s a very personal definition — knowledge of which helps define the choices we make, the goals we achieve and the path our lives take.

What shapes our view of ethics?

The short answer: Everything. Our experiences (or lack of); peers; religious beliefs; edicts from a power we deem higher than ourselves, i.e., international law or a Supreme Consciousness; people to whom we are exposed, for better or worse; and our decision to seek out models of ethical behavior are all examples of how we shape our ethical portfolios.

From the briefest glimpse at four perceptions of ethics, try to discern what factors helped shape these persons’ ethics:

“In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.” Earl Warren, Chief Justice, US Supreme Court

“Science cannot stop while ethics catches up … and nobody should expect scientists to do all the thinking for the country.” Elvin Stackman, President, American Association for the Advancement of Science

“Our consciences are littered like an old attic with the junk of sheer conviction.” Wilford O. Cross, author, Prologue to Ethics

“If a man is good in his heart, then he is an ethical member of any group in society. If he is bad in his heart, he is an unethical member. To me, the ethics of medical practice is as simple as that.” Dr Elmer Hess, President, American Medical Association

What do you believe formed your ethical foundation? You can’t determine that without a personal or organizational definition of what it means to you (or the firm) to behave ethically. For example, one person might believe that egregious acts, such as murder, cross an ethical line but all else is ‘fair game’. Another person might believe that to lie to someone or to gain personal profit at the expense of another is unethical, while yet another individual might fervently believe that any means are appropriate to reach an end goal that is personally satisfying.

Consider these real-world examples:

A colleague shared with us a story of a person who contacted her about how to best avoid the negative implications of bankruptcy, which he was going to pursue to relieve himself of the burden of personal debts he had accumulated. His question was not, “Is it ethical to claim bankruptcy just to make it easier for me?”, but rather “I know there are negative consequences of doing this; how do I avoid them?” Our colleague, not the person pondering bankruptcy-for-convenience, considered this an ethical violation, and others consider such behavior both unethical and an abdication of one’s personal responsibility.

In another real-world example, a person solicited and accepted a job with a small company for the sole purpose of qualifying for a mortgage, all the while communicating his interest in staying with the firm for a long period of time. Once the mortgage was approved, within a few months of joining the firm, he gave notice of his resignation while covertly negotiating with one of the firm’s clients to hire him as an independent consultant after he left the firm. The ink was still drying on his new contract while he told his soon-to-be-former colleagues he wasn’t sure what he’d be doing next. In hearing this story, we must assume that this person didn’t think his behavior was unethical, or at least not enough so to choose a more honest — or ethical — approach.

Communicating ethics in a way that informs and affects behavior

Use these tips as a starting point for incorporating your organizational ethics into the day-to-day activity of your business or department.

Examine the intention: As with any project, examine the underlying intentions for establishing company ethics. Are your ethical issues really a symptom of a greater ill, such as extremely low morale? Is the company following a new business fad, like developing a publicity-friendly ethics statement, but has no real interest in making its ethical ‘statement’ a behavioral reality? How ethical is the intention to spin a partially-true or untrue perception, and by whose ethical standard? The rationale will help determine how and why to communicate the messages to employees.

Highlight the company’s ‘legends’ that personify its ethics: Every company has stories that leadership likes to share to demonstrate the way they want to operate. For example, who hasn’t heard the story about the man who returned his car tires to Nordstrom’s, which didn’t even sell tires, and got a full refund? Get your ethics into mainstream organizational discourse by identifying and communicating ethical behavior and its positive results. One of the best ways to learn is by modeling another person’s rewarded behavior — give your employees plenty of models by celebrating true stories.

Make it a company norm-in-action: Ever hear the expression, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying”? This is the effect you want with your ethics. You can’t tell someone how to be ethical, but you can demonstrate ethical behavior. Do it, and do it consistently. Employees are watching.

Provide parameters and examples: While we don’t believe you can teach ethical behavior (and trying to might get you into legal trouble), you can ask employees to follow guidelines and tactics that support the organization’s standard of ethics. Whittle your ethics into easy-to-comprehend (and carry out) actions, and communicate those expectations to employees in a consistent and varied manner. This is similar to (and should be connected to) your employee handbook, among other communications. What does the organization expect from employees? What are the cultural codes of conduct? What actions are not allowed? There’s a great deal of benefit in refining an organizational code of ethics, with examples, as a group. Discuss any questions about legal limits of requirements regarding personal behavior with your attorney.

Incorporate news ways of understanding ethics: Communication approaches such as Dialogue allow participants to share ideas and beliefs in a safe environment free of judgement and assumptions. When discussing a topic as sensitive as ethics, use these methods that respect participants’ differences and insecurities around the subject matter and, perhaps more importantly, the source of their beliefs around ethics. This is one discussion where you might be best served by engaging a skilled, objective facilitator.

Meld ethics with business: Instead of creating a separate ethics department or officer, ensure your organization is using ethics as one of its metrics in all of its activity, including hiring new employees, pricing products, providing service and choosing clients. Again, you may wish to get input from your attorney to establish parameters before making the decision that makes the most sense for you and your organization.

Tie ethics to individual and departmental goals: Without a link to something that employees care about, little behavioral change will take place. Make the association for your audience, rather than assuming they’ll do it for you. Why should someone take the time out of his or her day to do this? How will their participation in supporting the organization’s ethical standards be incorporated into performance reviews? How will they be held accountable if they don’t behave ethically? How are the firm’s ethical standards supportive of the way clients experience the organization as distinguished from its peers?

Develop safe feedback mechanisms: Will an employee tell you or her supervisor about activities that seem to go against the grain of the company’s ethics (a communication avenue that can help you walk your ethical talk.)? They will be more likely to do so if they perceive there’s a safe way to do it. Whether through anonymous hotlines, suggestion boxes or one-on-one meetings, put mechanisms in place that allow employees to provide input and feedback without feeling as if they are jeopardizing their jobs or business relationships. Provide examples of how communication approaches can help overcome an individual’s concerns about sharing such information or getting a colleague into trouble. (Have you seen the movie The Insider, which told the harrowing story of one man’s concerns with organizational ethics?)

Use an advisor: As with any communication approach, yours must be tailored to your culture and desired goals to be effective. Getting an outside perspective and third-party facilitation can help defuse some of the anxiety around this topic, and help you highlight roadblocks between the reality in your organization and the ideal.

Remember, this information is food-for-thought, not customized counsel. The most effective interpersonal and organizational communication program is one that’s been tailored to meet the unique needs of your group.

This article was originally featured on Ivy Sea Online, and is use with permission