Truth and trust

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with the important matters.”

Albert Einstein

Today we will be presented with numerous opportunities to speak or to remain silent.

Each opportunity will either build trust or destroy it. Being truthful, and true to yourself, is a sure way to build trust.

How would you know, you might ask?

Think of a time you were lied to.

Want a good culture? Ease up on the scary stories.

In a recent piece, Andre Pinto reminds us that “exposure to other people’s dishonesty might lead us to be dishonest as well.”

Pinto points out that our moral compass is not fixed and can be swayed by how things are done around us. It can be swayed either way, so that other people’s honesty can also lead us to be more honest. The same goes with trust, respect or integrity.

This highlights the danger of sharing a disproportionate number of real cases of wrongdoing within a company, a practice that many ethics and compliance programs have adopted. By sharing bad examples on a weekly or monthly or even quarterly basis, we risk normalizing the behavior and increasing its frequency.

I have written before about the benefits of recognition. My take has usually been that when we “recognize” one person for their good behavior, what we actually do is help everyone else recognize the behavior we want to see. Well, social science tells us that if they see it often enough, they might start adopting it. Thus, we ought to favor positive examples over negative ones.

The need to fit in

People want to fit in.

For centuries, if we didn’t fit in with the tribe, we could not survive. We lost access to food, shelter and fire. We had to fit in or die.

This instinct is still with us. And so we want to fit in with our family, with our friends, with our colleagues. This means that we’ll sometimes do things we don’t believe in just to be accepted.

This heightens the importance of corporate culture. If the culture tolerates small acts of cheating, lying and stealing, newcomers will soon understand what they need to do to fit in. Add the snowball effect, and eventually you have big acts of dishonesty.

Why not create a culture of trust, respect and integrity instead?

At will

In many countries, employment is “at will”.

This means that we can get a job without having to sign a multi-year contract and we can quit anytime we like if a better opportunity presents itself.

It also means that an employer can let us go at any time for convenience. If the economy is bad, they can let us go. If they don’t like the types of movies we watch on the weekend, they can also let us go.

There is more room for abuse in such “unregulated markets”, and most of the employment abuses comes from employers (employees don’t kill their income just to spite their employers). This is why corporate values are important. Values like trust, respect and integrity can prevent jerks from firing employees for no good reason. Where there is no rule, values fill the gap.

Leaders should meet regularly with HR to review recent terminations, with a goal to verify that they were both legal and ethical.

Ethical stories

Many leaders now include a few words about the importance of ethics when addressing employees.

It’s usually at the end of the speech. There’s a short and dramatic pause, the CEO puts on a serious look and says: “Now, let me add that none of this matters unless we do things the right way…”

Those endings are important but, eventually, they feel formulaic and employees tune out.

There is another, perhaps better way.

Suggest that your leader sprinkle ethical stories throughout her speech instead, without using the word “ethics” with a capital E. She can describe how the company created trust with a new customer, which led to a big win. She can share how many employees – including executives – were disciplined for being disrespectful to others during the last quarter. She can explain how the company increased its spend with a supplier who acted with integrity. And so on.

These passing comments will have a greater impact because they are more real than an abstract Ethics Speech.

Collect your stories, share them, and watch how they become part of who you are as an organization.

Adding flexibility to rules

Organizations are complex.

To operate them efficiently, rules are helpful. When you see something that works, it helps to create a process – a rule – around it. The rule creates an algorithm that can be preserved and shared and followed.

At the same time, the rule preserves the status quo. It creates rigidity. When change inevitably comes, resistance leads to breakage.

What if we could adapt before we break?

That’s where values come in. Values are flexible. We can perform with integrity and show respect and foster trust in various ways. We can change the rules as necessary without changing our values.

Values are to adaptive performance what rules are to tactical performance.

Don’t pontificate

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say.”

A few generations ago, this was a common threat issued to children by parents. It was effective because it appealed to the child’s self-interest. No nagging. No pleading. No argument about good or bad. Children immediately understood the practical benefits of changing their behavior.

No one would recommend replicating this practice with adults in the workplace today. But the concept of appealing to our employees’ self-interest when promoting ethics and compliance still has merit. We have safety policies because we want our employees to go home safely every night. We provide training and implement controls so that they don’t inadvertently break the rules and lose their job. We ask them to promote organizational integrity because it gives them access to the resources they need to be successful.

Our job as E&C professionals is to protect the organization and its employees. Their wellbeing is closely connected. If we can show this connection (not pontificate), we are more likely to get compliance.


Today, make a list of all the tasks you accomplish as an ethics & compliance professional.

When the day is done, review your list. At least one task, if not all of them, will have brought value to one or more of the employees you serve.

Share that.

Share that with your E&C colleagues, on your blog, on your organization’s intranet, with a professional organization like the ECI, on Twitter, on LinkedIn.


But share.

This is a time when we need to see more examples of trust, respect and integrity.

In the workplace and beyond.

Teaching business ethics

Today is an academic day for me. I am presenting at Bentley University in the afternoon and teaching at UConn in the evening.

In many fields of study, the role of the teacher is to impart knowledge on her students. We expect English and math students to learn facts about these topics.

With business ethics, my aim is different. I seek to influence behavior.

I teach to move my students along the ethical leadership spectrum, from ethically unaware (in some situations) to ethical leaders. I teach that culture is an outcome, that it can be measured and improved. I teach about organizational integrity because personal integrity is not enough.

My quizzes and tests cannot measure my success. The real tests will be administered when my students enter the workforce. Will they recognize the ethical dilemma? Will they make the right decision? Will they implement it in a way that inspires others to do the right thing?

I don’t expect for a second that all my students will ace these real-life tests.

I can only hope that some will, some of the times.

And that it’ll make a difference.

We get paid $8 for lunch

“Don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal.”

A convenient phrase to (over)simplify an ethics program.

I often tell the employees I serve that if anyone asks them to do something that feels like cheating, lying or stealing, it’s a red flag and they should pause. Whatever they have been asked to do is likely to compromise our values of trust and integrity.

We would like to think that the obvious does not need to be stated. But what seems obvious on a blog post or in a classroom setting is not so obvious when we add the emotional and financial pressures of the workplace.

In my late teens, I worked as a helper on delivery trucks for a large corporation. It was a union job and our contract allowed us to be reimbursed for lunch. Each morning, the truck drivers/salesmen would agree on where to meet for lunch. On my first day on the job, the waitress gave everyone at the table a receipt and I completed mine. One of the drivers, a 30-year veteran, saw that I had written $5.50 on my receipt, took it, and asked the waitress to give me a new receipt. He told me “We get paid $8 for lunch. Write $8 on your receipt.” Everyone else at the table chuckled, and I complied.

Of course, we didn’t get paid $8 for lunch. We got reimbursed up to $8. I was young. I wanted to fit in. I needed the job. And so I didn’t pay attention to that feeling that I was cheating, lying and stealing. Because of the pressures at play, within seconds I rationalized my behavior and thought “Well, the union negotiated for $8, so it must be OK.”

Perhaps things would have been different if the company had an ethics program, if it had a confidential hotline, if it communicated its values and the importance of accurate books and records, or being a good steward of the shareholders’ money.

It’s hard to tell, 30 years later. The world has changed.

But I do remember the pressures that I felt at that moment. And those pressures haven’t changed much today.