Do you have a culture of ethical conversations?

Today, I would like to recommend Rashmi Airan’s latest blog post on creating ethics conversations.

One sentence made me pause. As she reflected on the many scandals of the previous decade, she wrote “The problem is that none of these organizations had a corporate culture of conversation focused on ethics.”

I have written many times that culture is an outcome of our processes. How we hire, recognize, compensate, incentivize and fire determines much of our culture. But I have never thought about processes in terms of generating conversations focused on ethics.

Well, in one small way I have. I believe that when we communicate about these processes we need to explain the “why” behind them. When we do, employees don’t feel that these measures are arbitrary and mindlessly imposed. And I also believe that we must encourage employees to speak up, not just when they see something wrong but also when they have an idea. But these two types of communications – explaining the “why” and speaking up – appear to be two one-way conversations compared to what Airan is proposing.

If we were to make a list of all the processes that lead to true conversations about ethics in our respective organizations, what would it look like?

Feeling safe: A key to employee retention

This post by Diane Stafford in the Kansas City Star includes several good tips on creating a positive corporate culture. Two caught my attention.

The first tip is to interview colleagues who sat next to the person who just quit. The theory is that many employees will not tell us the real reasons behind their departure, but their colleagues know. If we truly want to get better and prevent more exits, it’s worth asking.

This suggests that leaders should also ask similar questions before employees leave. Questions such as:

  • Are you enjoying the work that you do?
  • Do you have the resources necessary to do your job?
  • Is there an area of interest related to your job that you would like to explore?
  • Any thoughts on what this organization could do to strengthen its purpose?
  • What would you like to be working on in one year, three years?
  • What pressures do you feel at work that inhibit your performance?
  • What are the things that we currently do that you think we should stop doing?

The second tip is to “make employees feel trusted, respected and recognized for their contributions.” I would add one more concept, closely related to trust: make them feel safe. Employees who don’t feel safe work for their benefit, not that of the organization. And when this state of jeopardy lasts too long, they leave.

When we ask the questions listed above, we demonstrate that we care for our employees. In turn, they feel safer and are much more likely to stay with us and help us thrive.

Is it really safe?

You can ask employees to speak up but they probably won’t.

You can tell them that they will be protected from retaliation but they might not believe you.

You can write all of this down in a policy but it’s not likely to make a difference.

You can provide training about the importance of raising concerns but that doesn’t make anybody feel safe.

It’s all talk.

What we need is action.

We need leaders who keep their door open.

We need organizations that support ombudsman programs.

We need managers who follow up with those who raise concerns to let them know what they’re doing about it.

We need employees who are recognized for speaking up.

We need to hear about the ones who get fired for retaliating.

The desire to fit in, to belong, is deeply ingrained in human beings. Few will risk the safety of their tribe by outing another member.

Not until they feel safe in doing so.

When good people do bad things

Too often, we see colleagues lose their job for covering up a mistake that would not have led to any form of discipline, let alone their termination.

Those are the saddest moments.

They expose a low-trust culture where an employee is willing to risk her job or her career for fear of admitting a mistake.

Our typical response – to shake our heads in disbelief and then move on – is unacceptable. Someone just lost their job, in part because of the culture we created or tolerated. We ought to examine how we do things and look for what might have led to this unfortunate outcome.

Questions to ponder:

  • How do we react when others make mistakes, miss a deadline, fall short of a goal? Is the reaction commensurate to the missed opportunity?
  • When we make mistakes, do we admit them freely? Do we share the mistake and its learnings with others (demonstrating that one can survive mistakes)?
  • Do we go as far as encouraging mistakes by asking our employees to be curious and to experiment?
  • Do we recognize colleagues for pursuing innovative ideas, even if they fail?
  • Do we have unforgiving compensation schemes, where huge bonuses are paid for meeting 100% of the goal but nothing if 99.9% of the goal is met?
  • Do we offer an ombudsman program where employees can ask for advice while remaining anonymous?
  • Do we forgive mistakes made by senior leaders more easily than those made by the rank-in-file?

To be clear, employees who cheat, lie, and steal to cover up a mistake deserve to be punished. But let’s remember that everyone has a breaking point. So when someone breaks, how much of that pressure came from us?

A resolution for 2017

If you manage people, you should resolve to demonstrate ethical leadership every day.

Every. Single. Day.

Some ideas:

  • As you read the morning news, share with your team an E&C article that discusses a best practice or the latest scandal, and include your thought on its applicability to your business.
  • Send reminders as the E&C training deadline approaches.
  • Encourage employees to use the anonymous hotline to report a concern if they are not comfortable speaking with you.
  • When appropriate, share disciplinary actions taken against those who violated company policies.
  • When appropriate, recognize those who did the right thing to protect the company and each other.
  • Explain what conflicts of interests are and what the organization does to avoid them.
  • Lead training sessions (don’t always delegate them to Legal or your E&C professional)
  • Invite E&C professionals from neighboring companies to share their program with your team. Then share the results of this benchmarking event with the entire organization.
  • Talk about a section of your code of ethics at an all-hands meeting.

I could probably add 100 bullets to this list.

The point is: demonstrate the importance you place on E&C.

If it’s important to you – and your team can see it – it’ll be important to them.

Know thyself

Why do we survey our employees?

Why do we ask them to disclose potential conflicts of interests?

Why do we provide training and track its completion?

Why do we maintain an anonymous hotline?

Why do we approve business gifts before they are given?

Why do we have a code of ethics?

Why do we recognize positive behavior?


Our employees want to know.

Otherwise, it all seems like CYA stuff to them. Things we do to avoid fines and penalties.

Instead of focussing our efforts on telling our employees what to do, we should tell them who we are.

When we know who we are, we know what to do.

Is anyone paying attention to your work?

The usual ethics & compliance program comprises a team of ethics officers and compliance counsels. The lucky one also have professional investigators. But the majority lack a critical team player.

A communication specialist.

This is the person who writes articles on the intranet to summarize recent cases, to feature a member of your team, to recognize an employee exemplifying good behavior. This specialist can create a blog, send Tweets with the right hashtags, edit videos of an event and upload them to your company’s YouTube channel. She can help you prepare slides for your next employee meeting, arrange for a photographer to document your next trip overseas, and create a communication plan for the launch of your new Code of Ethics.

This expert becomes a megaphone. Someone to showcase all the good work done by your team. Without him, only you know all the work deployed to make your organization a better place. With him, employees see the organization in a new light and can feel a responsibility to support your efforts (dare I say “feel inspired”?).

In 2016, we must all think of ourselves as media companies. Doing good work is essential but often insufficient. Our work must be visible and communicated in a captivating way. No offense, but compliance counsels are rarely good at that.

If you are lucky enough to have the budget to hire a new team member, consider a communications guru.


Nothing is simpler than to find something to complain about. We can simply sit where we are, look around, and find one thing that’s not quite right, or one thing that’s not quite what it ought to be (but according to who?).

There is something else that requires barely more effort. Finding something to be grateful for. It requires a little more effort because our brains are wired to find what is wrong. That’s how we survived. But sabretooth tigers don’t roam the plains anymore and poisonous berries are not sold at the grocery store. We can relax a bit.

Ethics & Compliance Officers are supposed to look for what’s wrong and prevent risk. The nature of the job can lead to a pessimistic view of the world, if we let it. This is why it is so important for us to hunt for the good. It is as simple as looking at the value we bring to that one employee who calls with a question, the one who reports wrongdoing, the one we recognize for ethical behavior, etc.

Our job requires that we help people. That’s something to be grateful for.