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Does ethics have an image problem?

Ethics at work
Yes, argues Katherine Bradshaw of the Institute of Business Ethics. She offers some solutions in this guest post.This week’s results of EY’s 2015 Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA) Fraud Survey show that while nearly half of UK survey respondents said regulation in their sector had increased, only 15% said this had resulted in an improvement in corporate ethics.Less than a third of UK respondents rated their own company’s ethical standards as ‘very good’, showing the disconnect between regulation and business behaviour.

If regulation doesn’t work, how do you create and maintain a strong ethical culture?

The language of compliance, of punishment and mistrust isn’t working.

Stories about ethics focus on bad apples, fraudulent employees intent on misconduct. But the reality is that the majority of employees want to do their best for their organisation.

Ethics is personal. Just as everybody thinks they have a good sense of humour, so everybody thinks they are ethical.

That’s why it can be a challenge for companies to communicate to employees what they mean by ‘doing business ethically’.

Sometimes, unethical behaviour may be so ingrained into a company’s culture as to be considered ‘the way business is done around here’, and so may not be considered unethical at all.

Talking about ethics can raise different emotions in people: they might be offended (“How dare you? I have been working here for years; no one has ever suggested I was anything but ethical!”) or too busy (“I don’t have time! I’ve got real work to do.”) or just don’t care (“Whatever.”)

Ethics has an image problem – it’s seen as being about misconduct, corruption, black and white, bad behaviour, but it is more than that.

By the coffee machine, in the staff room, at the away day, you will often hear people talking about ethical issues without even realising it; issues of fairness or trust, conflicts, and dilemmas.  Employees communicate about ethics, regardless of any communication programme.

Communicating ethical values is not as simple as informing employees about regulations, facts, figures and procedures and checking they are compliant.

Ethics goes beyond compliance and springs from intrinsic values – like honesty, fairness, openness – that underpin behaviour. That’s why discussions about ethics must start with concepts that touch employees’ sense of self.

The very reason why values are the key to ethical behaviour – the fact that everyone has values and values inform everyone’s behaviour – is also the reason why ethics can be difficult to pin down.

To change behaviour, messages about ethics not only need to be understood intellectually, they need to be part of the organisation emotionally.

To create a culture of ‘doing the right thing’, we must reframe messages about behaviour.
Stories define who we are, what we do, and why and how we do it.

Company culture develops from the stories we tell each other.

So the stories we tell should cast employees as the heroes. We should celebrate the guardians of the company’s ethical culture. Employees are the protectors of its reputation. They need support, not regulation, to help them do the right thing.

Communicating Ethical Values Internally: an IBE Good Practice Guide is available here.

Upcoming relevant, PowerPoint free, discussion-based business meetings from Innovation Forum:

(if you read all the above, these are where you can meet fellow executives from companies working on all these issues)