Workable code of ethics can boost workplace trust

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

It’s that time again: On the horizon for the next 30 days are state and local elections in many states. Elections can be just as damaging to our society and economy as earthquakes and hurricanes are to our landscape and economy.

Polls show we have minimal trust in our elected officials in Washington. Is the situation any different at the state and local levels? Trust and ethical behavior are major issues today. Elected officials appear more interested in their own success than in that of the nation as a whole. Is it any different in business organizations?

In your own business there is likely a greater, but underlying, awareness of trust and ethical behavior problems. I have been contacted more in the last year about this issue than any other; it may be quite pervasive in our society today.

Look at the supermarket checkout line. Why are all those video cams zeroed in on cashiers? Could it be that management distrusts them? What about other cameras throughout the store?

Or drive on over to the big-box stores. Look up and see all those clustered cameras. Do they indicate a lack of trust in customers and employees?

There probably is sufficient justification for this investment in technology. Shrinkage is costly, and sticky fingers prevail in many environments beyond retail — and the pilferage likely runs high in organizations, too. (Don’t forget Enron and some of those banks.)

Trust is important in all relationships. Can it be further developed in your work setting? Yes, it can be improved. Several examples from business sectors may be helpful to you. You can pick and choose the ones to work on. This will give you a chance to be active in your management and get ahead of explicit employee or customer/supplier concerns.

Some businesses clearly lay out a statement of the organization’s values, which normally will dovetail with the mission statement. From your mission and values statements, most employees at all levels will have a good understanding of what is right and wrong. But not all companies provide this statement of values.

Many more have a code of ethics (including those with values statements) that is intended to serve as a guide to decision-making and overall behavior within the work setting. Do you have one?

Whether you’re considering a code of ethics for the first time or looking to improve an existing one, there are at least five important aspects to consider: the specifics (and how they are interpreted by all employees); the manner in which the code is developed and who develops it; how it is enforced/validated; whether employees understand that their behavior is expected to conform to the code; and lastly, how the intention of the code is communicated and instilled in all work unit associates (including management at all levels).

1. What is a code of ethics? Most organizations seek a statement of values that embodies essential beliefs about the proper behavior of all members. Some codes are not unlike commandments of good behavior. A code can be developed in a variety of ways, often through a new CEO or former CEO/founder.

A secondary force in establishing such a code may be a new human resources officer or a manager who is a newly minted M.B.A. The code is often posted in every waiting room, lounge, meeting room, in managers’ offices — everywhere employees come together. The buildings become saturated with postings of the code, and there might even be printed wallet cards.

2. What is normally included? How do you ensure that the elements are properly interpreted? The usual No. 1 element is the issue of integrity in all business dealings. There are numerous ways of expressing this emphasis on integrity. (You will find many website links.) The concept of “running right” is presented in one large company’s code. When you “run right” you normally can allow your natural inclinations to guide you in your behavior. When you even slightly question your actions, you probably are not “running right.” This company has found a unique way to integrate many of its programs under the “running right” theme. What other qualities do you want to emphasize? Some companies stress safety, others focus on customer service.

3. What are any reporting/enforcement and protection processes? Regretfully, most codes of ethics provide no vehicle for voicing allegations of improper behavior by fellow employees or managers. An individual must go to a manager and explain the concern and this, per se, is a major barrier to the success of a code. Whistleblowers are labeled disrupters and people know they could become targets for retribution — even from managers.

For that reason, employees might see the code as merely window dressing. Ideally, there is some form of corporatewide ombudsman to whom all questions of failure to comply can be reported, even anonymously. One large supermarket chain has a toll-free number for such purposes. Employees who give their names later get feedback about the company’s findings and actions. What do you do?

4. How will the code be developed, and by whom? I was recently contacted by a city manager who suspected that public works crews were removing equipment on weekends for personal use and might be forgetting to return the tools. Other materials also were taken for personal use.

A consultant was brought in and worked at getting the public works employees to decide what was “right” and “wrong” about using equipment and materials for personal use.

After several weeks of one- to three-hour meetings, the group came up with its own code of conduct, which was far more “corrective” than anything the human resources department might have set forth. Ironically, all members of the department were so proud of their integrity effort that they challenged the other city departments to develop their own. The result was a tailored code of ethics with quite specific language and one that had the commitment of the members of the department. Participation builds commitment.

5. How do you assure that all employees have a general knowledge, at least, of the code’s contents and intention? This is probably the most important component, and most organizations seem satisfied with simply posting and announcing the intent. Hopefully new employees also have some orientation to it. However, those organizations that truly seek to instill the ethical practices in the code must do more.

Success has been related to the frequency of emphasis on the code’s contents and how employees at each level are able to relate the ethical practice to their workplaces.

Consider a semiannual companywide meeting at the department level. Each department would prepare a presentation for fellow workers about what a part of the code means in that department and what needs to be done differently in the future. Expensive? Likely. However, it is an investment in quality performance in the long run. Ethics can be real, and even fun, when employees can be the role players and actors and avoid the behavior harming the department and the organization in the years to come.

Add another feature: Try videotaping the department presentations and show them in other departments on closed-circuit TV. Prepare a DVD of all presentations to share. Prepare a website for confidential access by all employees.

Maybe one more: Find ways to reward departments that put their ethical principles into practice. Accept testimonials about how changed behavior has benefited the organization. What kinds of rewards can you offer those who are practicing what management has set forth as principles to be followed?

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.

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