In today’s high-visibility world with the constant social media avalanche, it’s more important than ever to ensure that, as a leader, your ethical message is consistent. Anyone out there can talk the talk, but if you don’t truly believe in the importance of ethical behavior in your business career, it will become apparent to your employees, your peers and to the people occupying the C-suite.
If you’re searching for the answer to the ongoing dilemma of how to nurture an environment of trust, accountability and respect in the workplace, start with practicing ethical leadership in all levels of management.
To be an ethical leader, you must demonstrate ethical behavior — not just when others are looking, but all the time and over time. Consistently doing what’s right, even when it’s difficult, should be an integral part of a leader’s makeup. If you behave in an ethical manner when you’re in the spotlight, but avoid responsibility, cut corners and value profit above people behind closed doors, it is inevitable you’ll be found out.
The negative effects of failing to uphold ethics-based leadership and behavior are legion. A recent example is longtime financial institution Wells Fargo. Because of years of unethical sales practices, they were ordered to pay $185 million in fines in 2016 for the creation of 2 million accounts that were unauthorized by customers. With a deeper investigation of the sales practices in place at the time, which were questionable at best, it was found that some employees were actually fired for reporting this egregious corporate behavior to the company’s own ethics hotline. This “cross-selling” fiasco not only cost the company in fines, but more importantly, in the loss of its ethical reputation.
If you model ethical behavior, you can have a positive effect on your organization — even if you only start with your own department or team. The trust that ethical leadership builds is infectious. When you consistently act in an ethical manner, you’ll earn respect, and your integrity will serve as a model for others in the organization.
Being an ethical leader isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s unpleasant. Terminating an employee who cuts corners or uses company property for personal projects is necessary, but not enjoyable. To maintain your integrity is paramount, and acting ethically across the board is essential. As Andrew Leigh, author of Ethical Leadership: Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Business Culture points out: “To be an ethical leader is indeed to be different. This kind of leader acknowledges the complexity of running a responsible business, yet tries to do it anyway.”
When you and your organization do the right thing consistently, employees know. They have proof that management acts with integrity, which makes them much more likely to feel heard when expressing concerns — a valid anxiety for those afraid to rock the boat. According to the 2018 Global Ethics Business Survey by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, “Employees who see evidence of proactive communication and workplace trust are 15X more likely to think that their company measures and rewards ethical conduct.”
When a company effectively communicates the organization’s culture, values and beliefs, it tends to promote high standards for honesty, integrity and fairness. These concepts have to allow for open and honest feedback from your team, your division and even from your own managers. When leaders build that level of trust and camaraderie, colleagues can feel comfortable sharing the good and the bad. Ethical leaders should actively encourage candor, thoughtful dissent and diverse opinions from all sectors of the company.
Having a good and genuine example to follow gives employees the confidence to deal with their own ethical dilemmas, both work-related and personal. When they observe management promoting reward systems that are based on company values and ethical conduct, they understand the organization’s commitment to actually walk the walk.
As Ann Skeet, Senior Director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics, explains in an article, “Ethical leadership creates an environment where the goals and values of people working in the organization align with its mission.” If a leader is committed to ethical behavior, he or she should be able to make the decision that’s best for the company — even if that decision is against the leader’s best self-interest. It’s often a case of choosing the greater good and putting your own ego aside.
The path to being an ethical leader isn’t free of pitfalls. Skeet cautions, “Falsely identifying decisions as monetary or business decisions when they are ethical ones, working too quickly to allow for moral reasoning, or asking people to act when they are tired or scared are all tendencies that can lead to ethical missteps.” If leading with ethics is not something your prior employers valued highly, it may take practice on your part to become comfortable with this level of transparency, honesty, and collaboration, but the future benefits are well worth the effort.
As novelist, dramatist, critic, and essayist John Berger pointed out: “Without ethics, man has no future. This is to say, mankind without them cannot be itself. Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities.”
This article has previously been featured on Forbes