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Beyond good intentions and codes of conduct: What ethics in action really means

Published in the Rochester Business Journal
“Reading about ethics is about as likely to improve one’s behavior as reading about sports is to make one into an athlete.”
--Mason Cooley, U.S. aphorist

Pick up any day’s news, and one is likely to read about another government or business leader accused of wrongdoing.

At the same time, we’ve heard many stories lately describing how Robert Wegman’s deep-rooted integrity and genuine commitment to people drove his every decision and set the stage for the grocery chain to blossom into one of the nation’s most admired employers.

When it comes to ethics, then, which approach better exemplifies today’s climate in America – Bob Wegman’s or Tom DeLay’s? It probably depends on where you look.

A 2003 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management confirmed a disconnect between what is said and what is done inside U.S. companies. Seventy-nine percent of HR managers responding to the SHRM®/ERC Business Ethics Survey reported that their organizations have written standards of conduct in place, up from 73 percent in 1997. At the same time, however, a growing percentage of HR managers – 52 percent in 2003 vs. 47 percent in 1997 – said they feel pressure to compromise ethical principles.

Plenty of companies talk and write about high standards but, clearly, many companies’ actions fall short. For those who are serious about taking the high road, precisely what does it take to foster such a workplace climate?

Getting specific about ethics

Often, companies engage in formal programs such as developing written codes while paying little attention to informal ethics practices. But it’s those day-to-day activities and attitudes that tell the real story about just how ethically the company and its people behave.

Over the years, HR Works has learned a great deal about ethics in action by observing how our clients solve problems and nurture cultures grounded in integrity. And, through our participation last year in the Rochester Business Ethics Award program, we learned even more about what practices and attributes support a principled organization.

While a written code of conduct can be a key tool for setting expectations, encouraging dialogue and outlining enforcement, it’s only a start. Similarly, good intentions are important but often lack substance.

Instead, I’m convinced that developing an ethical culture begins with a personal commitment from the organization’s most senior person. Consider thinking about the CEO as chief ethics officer, and realize that integrity is not only about what a leader does but about how the leader does it. Employees will imitate the leader, or will find themselves out of synch with the company.

In addition to the leader’s commitment and modeling, the organization must develop a knowledge base of best practices, and ensure that every employee has the skills and awareness necessary to uphold rigorous standards in difficult circumstances.

Further, policies regarding ethics must be enforceable. Nearly three-quarters of the HR professionals responding to the SHRM®/ERC survey reported observing ethical misconduct. But only half of those who lodged complaints were satisfied with their organization’s response. If employees believe that nothing will be done to correct unethical behavior, the company’s claims lose credibility. Further, would-be whistleblowers often remain silent if they fear retaliation or being exposed – giving wrongdoing still more opportunity to flourish.

Some business people believe that operating ethically means paying their taxes, meeting payroll and adhering to EEO regulations. But one can hardly say that simply doing what’s required by law represents sterling ethics!

About the Rochester Business Ethics Award

For company leaders wishing to develop ethical cultures and benchmark their progress, a best-practice template is available – the application form for the Rochester Business Ethics Award.

Alan Ziegler, former president of the national Society of Financial Service Professionals, which founded the national Business Ethics Award program in 1994, brought that program to the Rochester chapter in 2003. He continues to serve on the RBEA steering committee.

Ninety-two local businesses have been nominated for the 2006 RBEA. But only a portion of them will take the next step by completing the program’s in-depth application process, Ziegler says. Those who pursue the detailed application requirements will subject their organizations’ cultures and practices to the intense scrutiny of the judging committee. A few organizations will be named finalists and, come September, one large company and one small company will be chosen recipients of the award.

Recognizing that writing about ethics does not guarantee that a company is living its principles, the RBEA steering committee is considering adding on-site audits of applicants to the judging process, Ziegler says.

Ziegler’s interest in promoting ethics education and benchmarking is motivated in part by his desire to raise the ethics bar in Rochester and provide visibility for local companies that adhere to high standards. Ultimately, he’d like to create a “community conversation” about ethics, perhaps through seminars, discussions of pertinent books and documentaries, and/or workshops involving college and high school students.

HR Works’ journey

HR Works was first nominated for the RBEA in 2004. At the time, we felt unprepared to devote the time needed to complete the substantial application form, so we opted out. But we held on to the form and thought seriously about its questions. When we were nominated again in 2005, we were ready. Thanks to the clarity of the form’s questions, the task became easier than we had anticipated.

We assigned a project leader and set a timeline. Guided by the form’s questions, we surveyed employees and conducted interviews to flesh out their responses.

On the application form, we documented our responses to common business challenges – a customer complaint, a billing dispute, an employee’s unusual request. We explained how we train employees to respond appropriately to dilemmas. We showed how senior management supported an employee who took an unpopular stand with a client in order to uphold principles.

At no point did we dwell on “winning.” Instead, by stepping back and involving our executives and employees in thinking through our company’s approach to ethics, we strengthened ourselves as an organization. That effort has paid off enormously.

Only later – after we were named 2005 RBEA recipient in the small-business category – did we discover the bonus of learning how much significance our bankers, clients and vendors placed on this award.

Some companies have considered entering this process but have hesitated. Alan Ziegler will tell you that, even if you haven’t been nominated for the award, you’re invited to use the application form as a template to examine your culture and see whether you can benefit from others’ best practices. Every effort to put ethics on the front burner advances that community conversation.


© HR Works, Inc.

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HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.