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Prevent ethical breakdowns

by Stan Craig

Stan CraigEthics and values are eroding across a wide spectrum of government, organizational and corporate sectors around the world. Bribes, cheating, criminal behavior, sexual abuse and harassment are becoming commonplace. A nationwide survey on workplace ethics in 2011 opened with this startling statement, “Based on what we see now, we expect workplace ethics to decline.” That is a powerful and alarming comment, but it is based on solid research from the Ethics Resource Center

It seems as if not a day passes by without a new story about ethical breakdowns. From doping athletes in baseball and cycling being stripped of titles and victories to politicians who behave as if sexual harassment and financial self-dealing are privileges of office, the stories are never ending.

Why are ethics in decline for individuals and corporations?

  • A me-first attitude that places corporate interests and individual pleasure or gratification before all other ethical responsibilities
  • A craving for power, status, wealth and recognition that sees people, family, friends and others as tools to be used whenever necessary
  • An “everybody is doing it” attitude that implies permission for any behavior
  • A lack of accountability, which makes ethical misconduct a personal matter
  • A social acceptance of wrong-doing as a way to succeed, stand out and achieve goals without the out-of-date restraints of the past
  • A “rot at the top” stain which harms the entire body, group or company
  • A focus on short-term benefits at the expense of quality, value and integrity

The good news is that you can prevent ethical issues in your company by making ethical behavior a priority. Here are a few ways to create a culture of ethical behavior:

  1. State the values that matter and why—for your firm, your clients and every employee. Stated values have a perceived value in the workplace when posted, referred to and taught. They give meaning to the daily work routine. A common commitment to the client, providing the best products in the market place, and unparalleled service carry more value than stockpiling profits which employees do not always share.
  2. Publicize the firm’s commitment to ethical values. Customers, clients and prospective business are all impacted positively when values are publically stated. It is especially powerful when the values are demonstrated. Target, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart are just a few retailers who put the dollar amount of their charitable contributions on display.
  3. Top-down leadership must commit to ethical values. Research indicates that employees do not believe top management lives up to the values and ethics they say they believe. Leaders must demand the best from themselves and reward employees who report misconduct and violations of the stated policy.
  4. Managers at every level must pledge to learn, teach and apply the values stated. When employees see their own management team living corporate or organizational values and expecting all others to do the same, it is a confirmation that values matter.
  5. Remind the entire organization that the right thing to do is always to do the right thing. Pressure to create sales and meet rollout deadlines, or reach the goal and please the stockholders or owners should never result in compromised behavior. Values and ethics are the glue that holds everything together. When they are broken, the sound carries far and wide and can trigger an avalanche ethical lapses that can never be undone.
  6. Mottos and mission statements make a difference when they are displayed throughout the workplace. A mission, a motto and stated values can be printed on wallet cards, posters, or wall plaques in offices and gathering places. Values matter, and seeing them implies that they are just as important as labor laws and evacuation guides, and -perhaps- more meaningful for employees.
  7. Be quick to take action when ethics and values are violated. If you want to denigrate a previous effort and integrity, ignore a violation when it occurs. Permitting violators to continue in their position when the facts of poor behavior are clear ends all creditability with your employees. The word will circulate quickly and undermine any previous efforts to maintain ethical standards If it is believed that some can get by with anything while others are punished, that sends a powerful message that ethics do not exist.
  8. Ethical training and discussions help put values to work. When management expresses the values that the company or organization is to live by, employees are challenged to follow the example the company sets. This is one time when top-down leadership clearly works. Describing the right actions resulting from your shared values builds trust.

Consider this: your values actually create value for your company. Year after year some of the world’s most admired companies, the best places to work and highest growth companies are those with clear corporate values demonstrated in the work place.

Top ethical companies are in every industry: oil and gas exploration, healthcare and restaurants, Internet companies and financial service. There are a variety of rankings from Forbes, Ethisphere and others.

Ethisphere plainly states, “These companies also understand that a strong culture of ethics is also key to helping drive financial performance.”

Employees want to come to work every day more excited than the last—no one wants to dread going to work. Even tedious and repetitive tasks have a purpose larger than the action itself. A unified understanding of the key values applied to decision-making makes a difference. A deep commitment and belief in the mission of the company to delight customers, develop dedicated clients, solve problems and positively impact others is a value to be created, understood and shared. When the ethical line is blurred and values are questioned, employees stop believing in the company and taking pride in their job and its significance.

Your business or organizational culture is a conscious state of mind. It makes all the difference in the pride and accountability in each employee and how clients, customers or potential clients are treated in your organization. Culture is built on values, ethical expectations and behavior. Make your ethics and values real and watch the positive changes that flow from these clear and expressive centerpieces of your culture.

John Hammond said, “Character is the real foundation of all worthwhile success.” That applies to corporations and organizations as well as individuals. Declining ethics and values need not be a prophecy fulfilled. Build your corporate character, explain and live your values and it is likely success will follow in more ways than you can imagine.

Stan Craig, the founder of the ForeTalk Seminar, is an accomplished financial planner, executive coach and keynote speaker. He is also author of “ForeTalk: Taking Care of Tomorrow Today.” As a finance professional, Stan enjoyed a 27-year career at Merrill Lynch, which included positions as National Sales Manager, Director of Global Sales for Defined Asset Funds and the First Vice President and Senior Director of the Office of Investment Performance. For more information on Stan, please visit


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