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Business Basics – 103

Part 2 – Management’s role in setting ethical standards

Ethics isn’t so much taught as it is picked up vicariously. We tend to learn our standards and values based on observing what others do, not what they say. Organizational ethics begins at the top, with leadership and strong managers helping to instill corporate values in employees.

Intra-company relationships should be based on fairness, honesty, openness and moral integrity. Trust and cooperation between workers and managers is built on these foundational structures. The same applies to business-to-business relations as well. Businesses managed ethically often enjoy many benefits, such as maintaining a good reputation, keeping existing customers and attracting new ones, avoiding lawsuits, reducing employee turnover, pleasing customers and employees, and simply doing the right thing.

While some managers think ethics is a personal matter, having nothing to do with management, and that they are not responsible for their employee’s misdeeds, the business environment has moved the other way, that ethics has everything to do with management. There is recognition that individuals typically don’t act alone, they need the direct, or even implied, cooperation of others to behave unethically within a corporation. For example, poorly designed incentive programs might reward employees for meeting certain goals, and in order to meet these goals they need to act in their own best interests rather than the best interests of the customers. Here the message is clear, while their managers don’t directly say to deceive customers, overly ambitious goals and incentives can create an environment in which unethical actions are likely to occur.

A popular trend is that companies are adopting written codes of ethics. While these codes vary greatly, they fall within two broad categories: compliance-based and integrity-based. Compliance-based codes emphasize preventing unlawful behavior by increasing control and penalizing wrongdoers, while integrity-based codes define the organization’s guiding values, create an environment supportive of ethically sound behavior, and stress shared accountability. Stated differently, integrity-based codes of ethics go beyond legal compliance and create an environment emphasizing core values such as honesty, fair play, good customer service, a commitment to diversity and community involvement.

Business ethics should include the following:
1. Top management should adopt and unconditionally support a written code of conduct.
2. Employees must understand expectations for ethical behavior, that it comes from the top, and that senior management expects all employees to act accordingly.
3. Managers and other key personnel must receive training on the ethical implications of business decisions.
4. The company should create an ethics office, where employees can communicate freely. Make it clear to employees that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation.
5. Pressure to ignore ethics programs often comes from the outside. Help employees to resist such pressure by ensuring outsiders such as suppliers, subcontractors, distributors, customers, etc. are aware of the company’s ethical standards.
6. The code of ethics must be timely enforced if violated.

Enforcement might be the most critical component, it communicates to employees that the code is serious; a company’s code of ethics is worthless if not enforced. Select an effective ethics officer to set a positive tone, communicate effectively, and relate well with all levels of employees. The ethics officer should be comfortable in the roles of counselor and investigator, should be trusted to maintain confidentiality, conduct objective investigations, and ensure fairness. This demonstrates to stakeholders that ethics is important in eveything the company does.

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