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What in the world is happening?

Whether you turn on the television, log on to the internet, or open a newspaper ethical failures are being reported. These ethical failures infect both business and government, and they encompasses a range of issues. What is surprising is that these failures in ethical behavior occur despite the existence of written policies and procedures, codes, and corporate statements of Values. Many of these entities have corporate cultures that call for ethical behavior within a company structure and towards external clients and suppliers/vendors.

Ethical lapses can have serious consequences that impact a company’s reputation, its relationship with stakeholders, and even with various governmental entities. Why then are there ethical failures by supervisors and employees up and down the chain of command? What leads individuals to take shortcuts, or make decision that are not in the best interest of the organization or the company? These and other equally valid questions point to what I believe to be a major weakness in many corporate initiatives related to ethics.  It stems from a focus that is almost entirely directed at compliance to legal standards.

As stated by Dr. Leonard J. Brooks in his book Business and Professional Ethics, a sound basis or strategy to comply with state and federal laws governing ethics is an absolute requirement in today’s environment. The penalties laid out in the statues are severe.  Policies and procedures designed to assure compliance to statutes are a necessary requirement. Yet, where many companies fail is in structuring all of their training toward prevention.  All of the checks and balances focus on surveillance mechanisms, procedures and standards emphasize control and the limiting of authority, and they institute monitoring processes and audits to assure compliance.

This focus on compliance to the exclusion of everything else is designed to prevent bad behavior from occurring. This emphasis on preventing negative outcomes will always fall short of its objective if the other side of the coin is missing. That is training managers, supervisors, and employees to work positively inside an ethical framework. Good behavior has to be discussed, sometimes even taught, and reinforced on a regular basis.

When I am asked to give talks on ethics I make clear to those listening that ethics has to be treated as a discipline, and much like safety programs discussed on a regular basis.  Leaders and managers and all levels need to engage in practical exercises to help employees understand what constitutes a conflict of interest, where it can arise, and why it is different from the concept of improper behavior, sometimes called impropriety. That they can intersect and become one and the same is true, but they don’t mean the same thing. There are many other practical exercises that should be examined and discussions that should be undertaken on a regular basis to aid employees up and down the chain of command to stay within the four corners of what is ethical.