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Who Defines Ethics in Your Organization?

by Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International

Presumption of innocence is a fundamental right in most civilized countries. In criminal trials, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution which is required to meet a threshold of reasonable doubt in the presentation of evidence. So indoctrinated are we to the concept that a presumption of guilt is regarded as immoral. To that end, business practices, such as pre-employment drug testing, are frequently the target of rights activists who believe such practices violate the principle by requiring job candidates to prove themselves innocent.

Beyond law and order, the presumption of innocence has implications in all aspects of our lives. From parenting to education to business to politics, and everything in between, we are continuously challenged to assume the best in others and suffer the disappointment and consequences when our trust turns out to have been misplaced.

In the business world, leaders are encouraged to build a culture of trust. Evidence of this consistent message to leaders was revealed through a casual Google search on the words "trust" and "leadership" that yielded over 21 million hits. Nearly all of the volumes of books, articles, classes and speeches on the subject extol the virtues of trust, remind leaders that employee surveys reveal a deficit of trust, and encourage leaders to trust more and assume the best. After all, presuming innocence is not only an essential moral foundation of a civilized society but it is also sensible business practice. Or is it?

Consider these troubling statistics from the 2006 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. The Josephson Institute of Ethics is the organization that administers the CHARACTER COUNTS!℠ youth ethics project.

The survey of 35,000 young people asked questions about their behaviour in the past 12 months. These are the findings:

How did the survey respondents feel about their own behaviour?

The numbers tell an interesting story. The same population who described themselves as ethical also admitted to lying, cheating and stealing, on the same survey.

Could the survey results be skewed? Unfortunately the results probably understate the situation. Think about who might lie when completing a survey. People are more likely to say they didn't lie when they did but doing the opposite (saying they lied when they didn't) is unlikely.

These same young people weighed in with their views on the importance of ethics and character.

What can be gleaned from these contradictions? Apparently the behaviours of lying, cheating and stealing that the survey respondents admitted to have been justified in their own minds, extending to themselves the presumption of innocence.

It's a disturbing thought that the young people who confessed to these ethical breaches today are the parents, educators, colleagues, employees, managers, elected officials and business owners of tomorrow.

Are the subjects of this study representative of the general population? How would your child respond to this survey if anonymity was guaranteed? How would you respond?

How can we reconcile the conflicting messages? Presumption of innocence versus rampant confessions of deception. High moral standards versus inherent human frailties.

There is little we can do, or indeed little anyone would want to do, about the fundamental right we cherish of the presumption of innocence. To embrace a philosophy that presumes guilt would be tantamount to turning back the clock on civilization.

Is there anything we can do about the deceptions and tactics others employ in their own self-interest?

For nearly everyone, the questions are troubling and the actions called for unclear. For individuals charged with building a culture of trust in organizations, the complexity of nurturing an ethical environment can be overwhelming.

How successful are attempts to promote and influence ethical behaviour in organizations? The 2006 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth provides the views of youth on the subject.

Since the survey respondents are members of the next generation entering the workforce, the failing grade they assigned on the state of ethics in the corporate world should be of great concern to business leaders.

Apparently it is. Like the survey respondents, it is difficult to find a leader at any level that doesn't readily agree about the importance of character and ethics. But the same leaders, like the young people surveyed, frequently fall short when called upon to translate the virtue they embrace into action.

The daunting task of promoting ethical behaviour in organizations is often assigned to the learning function's members who frequently struggle in their attempts to gain the necessary time, support and resources. This should surprise no one given that the challenges are great, the path uncertain and the metrics to measure success often elusive.

Is there a solution? What is the learning professional to do? Can a trusting nature and a healthy dose of skepticism co-exist in organizations? Can a culture of trust be fostered at the same time as a culture that challenges the choices people make?

Here are five helpful tips that learning professionals can incorporate into existing employee orientation programs, leadership development curriculum, executive coaching and company meetings to address the topic of ethics.

1. Champion safeguards in the organization.

Remind yourself that the presumption of innocence afforded to an individual does not require naivete when considering large numbers of people that surveys reveal bend rules and later rationalize their own bad behaviour. Assume the best in others while also championing the establishment of safeguards to reduce both temptation and the ease of wrongdoing by individuals inclined to breach ethics.

Facilitate process improvement events that seek to move beyond simply improving efficiencies and also flag or prevent ethical breaches. It has long been a standard practice in accounting that the individual responsible for paying the bills is a different person from the one responsible for reconciling the bank statement. Similarly, a company policy that requires the most senior person at a business function to pick up the restaurant tab, naturally ensures that expense approvals are made by a third party who was not at the event and can evaluate the expense on its merits. Seek to introduce checks and balances throughout the organization whenever process-improvement is on the agenda.

Trust and also verify. Ask for details. Ask for information to be repeated. Ask lots of questions. Ask about different topics. Ask for written summaries of steps taken and actions agreed. Even the most skilled liar will often stumble when required to fabricate many answers or when required to record their deeds on paper.

Provide a mechanism for individuals in the organization to ask questions about ethics and report misdeeds without risk of negative consequence.

Remember that deception is difficult to detect. Mechanized lie detectors and polygraph tests have proven unreliable in detecting lies and in providing an alarming number of false-positives. Similarly unreliable are many human attempts to accurately diagnose deception, even by highly trained professionals like police officers and judges who get a lot of practice being lied to. Collect data and rely on the systems in place to do the job they were designed to do. When systems reveal deception, resist the temptation to transfer your feelings to others who may be worthy of trust.

2. Provide leaders with training, feedback and coaching.

Leaders establish principles concerning the way goals should be pursued and the way people should be treated. They set examples for others to follow. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, surveyed over 15,000 people and asked them how they would like their leaders to behave. The overwhelming first-choice was honesty. Honesty was followed by the ability to be forward-looking (to think about the future and what it will be like), the ability to be inspiring (to get people excited and motivated about things), and competence (knowing what they need to know to do a good job). When these four qualities are added together they make up a key quality of leadership and that is credibility.

The root word for credibility is the word "credo" which means I trust or I believe. It is the same root word for credit. When you get a loan or apply for a credit card, they do a credit check on you. The reason they do this is to see if they can trust you or believe you. It is the same with leaders. Followers want to know that they can trust their leaders. That is presumably why the research showed that people valued credibility over everything else and is an excellent starting point when providing training for leaders on the subject of ethics.

Teach leaders how to build their credibility. Provide them with their own credit report in the form of a 360 degree leadership assessment that will inform them about how their behaviours are perceived by others. Make training and coaching available for leaders to reconcile the differences between how they see themselves and how others see them.

Provide leaders with opportunities to learn how to do the two most critical things leaders are called upon to do: (1) select people who not only possess the skills and knowledge to carry out job responsibilities but also fit within the corporate culture and reflect the ethics desired by the organization and (2) create an environment where people can thrive and be most successful.

3. Provide training throughout the organization designed to build relationships and foster the development of interpersonal skills.

Healthy relationships are those that consistently are characterized by collaborative behaviours that result in mutually beneficial outcomes. In healthy professional relationships, ethical behaviour is more likely than in relationships among strangers or where mistrust exists. One does not have to look far in organizations to discover that collaboration is not the norm.

We interact with others all day, every day. Effective interpersonal skills rank high on the lists of the qualities we value in others and others value in us. In spite of the strong awareness we all seem to have for the importance of these skills, the average person does not relate well to others. As a result, many of us resort to situational ethics where the ethical choices we make are driven largely by the nature of the relationship we enjoy with others. When we stretch the truth when interacting with a stranger or customer but think twice about that same behaviour when interacting with a close colleague, friend or relative, we are guilty of employing situational ethics.

Trust is built over time. A valuable lesson to learn and to teach others is to slow down and seek to build a relationship with the other party before reaching an agreement, negotiating the solution to a problem, or closing a deal. The odds of being deceived are much higher in transactions that involve a single interaction over those that involve a series of interactions over time.

It is interesting to note that as the means of electronic communication becomes easier, people often find face-to-face communications more difficult. In pursuit of relationship-building, encourage personal face-to-face training and communications. It's easier for people to lie when the communication is more impersonal such as on the phone or via email. The expediency of electronic communication is small reward if you've been deceived.

It has become clear by now that the government and the traditional education system is not going to ensure that the future members of the workforce graduate with a solid foundation in personal and interpersonal skills to bring to their careers. To foster a culture of ethics, companies must equip people with critical skills such as communication, etiquette, listening, judgment, decision-making, teambuilding, negotiation and conflict resolution.

4. Bring intercultural training to your organization.

Culture is a shared system of meaning. It determines what we pay attention to, how we act and what we value. Culture determines the interpretation we assign to another person or organization's behaviour. Even for members within the same organization, a person's national culture will color and reflect how goals and missions of the organization's culture are understood and met. What is considered to be a fee for service in one culture is considered a bribe in another.

With a growing global economy and an increasingly international community, attention to varying interpretations of values and ethics must command top priority. It is not enough to communicate corporate values. In-depth training on company expectations and how the values translate into day-to-day behaviours is critical.

Integrity is a word found in many company value statements. Conduct an experiment by asking people to talk about what integrity means to them in specific behavioural terms. You may be surprised to discover the creative rationalizations people use to justify their own behaviour in the name of integrity.

With a diverse workforce, the complexity of defining ethics and agreeing on standard protocols becomes complicated. When business is conducted across the globe, the picture is even more complex. Yesterday's diversity training designed to promote understanding and teach individuals to value and appreciate differences is not enough when it comes to ethics.

To be effective, we need to be culturally wise. We must learn to realize that superficial understanding can have a tremendous negative impact on people and business itself. Differences in values mean differences not only in how but why people behave the way they do. Training by a skilled Interculturalist addressing the underlying attributes of world cultures is essential today.

5. Above all, don't contribute to the problem.

Hold yourself to a higher standard. Become the rare person who carefully and consciously chooses your behaviour. Constantly question and challenge yourself. Are you judging yourself by your good intentions or by your actions? Are you rationalizing a bad act after-the-fact to justify it or did you act from your core values?

Remind yourself that your acts of omission are just as dangerous as acts of commission when the result is another person missing critical information or inferring an untruth. Many of us create a double-standard by refusing to lie on principle (innocent of commission) yet fail to disclose important information (guilty by omission).

If you have a naturally trusting nature (many of us do) and believe others until you have a reason to distrust them, balance it with a strong sense of curiosity and awareness, especially early in the relationship-building process.

Foster a culture of trust by talking about ethics, go public in your commitment to honesty and openness, and role model the behaviours you want to see. And when you make a mistake, as you inevitably will, 'fess up and make it right.

Who defines ethics in your organization? If not the leaders and champions in the learning function, defining ethics will be left to the individuals themselves. A frightening thought when the survey results on ethics of the future workforce are considered.

A culture of ethics is within the grasp of every individual, family, organization, community and nation. It is not easy and does not happen instantly. Like all growth, the process is long and mistakes along the way can represent critical learning moments. Take small steps, celebrate successes, and be kind to each other along the way.


Adler, Nancy J. (2002), International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior. South-Western, a division of Thomson Learning.

Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics (2006), Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. www.josephsoninstitute.org. To learn more about the Josephson Institute's Report Card Survey on the Ethics of American Youth please see: www.charactercounts.org.

Kouzes J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2002), The Leadership Challenge. Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kouzes J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (1993), Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lewicki, Roy J. (May 2007), Walk the Line: Ethical Dilemmas in Negotiation. Negotiation � Negotiation and Decision - Making Strategies That Deliver Results, A Newsletter Published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Volume 10, Number 5.

Schweitzer, Maurice E. (March 2007), Call Their Bluff! Detecting Deception in Negotiation. Negotiation � Negotiation and Decision - Making Strategies That Deliver Results, A Newsletter Published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Volume 10, Number 3.

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