The ethics of the heart

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from Legatus,

Ethics matter, just as the title of this column presumes. This is an axiom, not an option. But that reality can’t be separated from the hearts of those we lead. It’s imperative that leaders communicate their vision and application of ethical matters so that the culture within the organization doesn’t suffer.

This conundrum is especially problematic in a day and age when most people aren’t grounded on moral issues. In other words, when a workforce is not morally grounded, it’s important to educate them. It’s imperative to define clearly what moral concerns are prevalent in your work environment.

There is no doubt that black-and-white issues like lying, cheating and stealing are pretty easy for the common person to understand. However, there are nuances in the workplace that can become cloudy. In fact, a 2013 report from the Ethics Resource Center found that 41% of U.S. workers reported that they observed unethical or illegal misconduct on the job.

The majority of the unethical behaviors reported were considered “mild.” This means that they were not robust behaviors that were clearly understood by all parties. To a well-formed Catholic, that might sound absurd (and, in a way, it is absurd). Unfortunately, not everyone is a well-formed Catholic. In fact, most people don’t know how to think ethically. To substantiate that point, consider that the law is the bar that most people use to determine ethical behavior. That is to say, if it’s legal, then it’s ethical and vice versa.

It clearly doesn’t mean that unethical behaviors are “okay” as long as they don’t break laws. It also doesn’t mean that if unknowing participants conduct infractions, it’s okay. What it does mean is that employees must be trained on ethical matters from the perspective of a well-formed leadership team. In other words, from leaders who know better.

The best tools for generating that outcome are culture, policies and procedures. Culture is by far the most important of these tools. A powerfully communicated and lived-out culture becomes an antibody for ferreting out unethical behaviors. This is similar to the way in which a child learns ethics at home. In certain families, lying is permitted by way of example. When a child senses a parent lies in order protect himself, then the child determines that lying is “ethical” if the stakes are high enough or if the circumstance “merits” a lie. In other words, they rationalize that “if my dad did it, then I can do it too.”

On the other hand, if a child is taught that telling the truth is important no matter what pain is associated with the outcome, then she is more willing to tell the truth. And even if she doesn’t, she at least knows better. Therefore she is culpable for her behavior. Taking this analogy back into the workplace, if leaders define the proper way to conduct themselves, then employees will “know better.”

Likewise, policies which prevent unethical behaviors are essential. If these policies are explained from a moral perspective, then when less-defined examples enter into the workday, employees can generalize the standards and apply them. This allows for corrective actions to take place without hurting the culture. In fact, the use of corrective action will enhance and strengthen the culture.

Finally, procedures are important. A procedure is different than a policy because a procedure tells the employee how to go about the action of behaving appropriately, whereas the policy defines the behavior. In the end, the question that most directly defines the power of your “ethical culture” is, “What does it mean to work here?” If employees can answer that question with a moral overtone such as “to do what is right, in the right way, at the right time,” then the culture is secure.

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