We may think our people are internally equipped to handle ethical issues at work, but they should not have to guess what to do. It is the responsibility and role of the business owner to give employees a strong framework for what we consider to be ethical behavior. Yet it is rare when a company communicates where it stands on ethical matters.
Furthermore, owners often assume that all employees operate from a common and “known” set of ethical beliefs. The fact is, employees do not share similar ethical backgrounds. An individual’s personal beliefs should not be the basis for making ethical decisions that affect the entire company.
A framework is needed -- one that is simple and memorable that can guide employee behavior in work situations. A framework is a general principle that guides behavior and is a compass when a situation falls into a gray area. Think about the Hippocratic Oath, which is a guideline used by physicians to measure each ethical situation against a benchmark: do right by the patient and do no harm to the profession.
A framework should address diversity
Expectations for employee behavior around ethics is challenging. We each come to the table with different backgrounds, religious beliefs, moral training, cultural heritage, family norms and personal experience.
For that reason, employers must make their ethical position crystal clear so employees understand how to assess situations on the job. A company’s ethical framework should be specifically aligned to the company’s values while recognizing and appreciating employee diversity.
A framework is not an employee handbook
Of course, each company should have an employee handbook that lays out rules, expectations, how to file grievances, consequences of misbehavior and so forth. While an employee handbook can cover ethical behavior, it is a business document primarily designed to protect the employer, not to educate an employee how to act in ethical situations.
In addition, an employee handbook is a complex document. It is not an easy resource to use in a moment of ethical dilemma. A framework, on the other hand, can guide employees in all kinds of situations. If it is simple and well-written, it can act as an overarching operating principle.
A framework should not be complex
An ethical framework is not a legal document or set of complicated rules. It must, however, cover many ethical situations. It must be general enough that, in a heated or stressful moment with a customer or vendor, the employee can recall its essence and make choices confidently.
Here are examples of ethical frameworks:
- “ We Believe” framework. Make a list of ethical high points that start with the phrase “We believe…”
- “ The Greater Good” framework. Create a very broad statement that tests behavior against the benefit or detriment to society, such as: “Every employee, from our newest hire to our founder, is expected to act in a way that reflects well on the organization and contributes to the greater good of society and the world.”
- “Golden Rule” framework. Center your framework around the principle of treating others as you would wish to be treated.
- “The Founding Story” framework. Write a story that shows how the ethics of the founder shaped the company, guided the hiring of employees, and laid the foundation for success.
- “ The Peace of Mind” framework. Let employees know that if they act in good faith according to the guiding principles of the framework, the company will support their decision and “have their back.”
- “The Ultimate Test” framework. Have a statement that fills in the blank, “When all else fails…” and let employees know this is the option of last resort when they have exhausted all others.
A framework should be constructed so it can be a bridge between transitions. If the owner sells the business or an important manager leaves the company, the essential framework should be able to survive. In fact, the framework can guide the new owner or manager.
Major changes to the framework should be done thoughtfully. In many companies, the employees are involved in the development and evolution of the framework, as is often done in the creation of employee handbooks.
However, the framework should always reflect the company’s core mission and values and not be a hodgepodge of employee beliefs.
A framework – part of the company fabric
To embed your ethical framework into the culture of the company, it helps to:
COMMUNICATE on signs, in a slogan, in the corporate email signature, and anywhere employees spend time.
WRITE a regular column about ethics and integrity in the company newsletter.
CREATE memorable, bite-sized stories of ethical behavior.
WEAVE the greater story into goal setting and training sessions, management meetings, and morale building exercises.
DISPLAY books on ethics and integrity in the company library.
HIRE top speakers and consultants to help you further deepen your commitment.
VOICE your commitment publicly and ask for accountability from outside the company.
INCORPORATE ethics and integrity into your visual branding.
When your framework is interconnected into the day-to-day activities of the company, employees at all levels are more likely to internalize the principles.
A framework should signal your intent
In everything you do, your ethical framework should back up and reinforce your intention to be a company of integrity.
- Choose partners and suppliers that have stated goals for integrity.
- Build business processes so that acting with integrity is gratifying.
- Even before employees join the company, communicate where you stand on ethics so they can opt out if they feel they can’t meet your standards.
- Create redundancies, just as you would for quality control in manufacturing, so that a slip in judgment or an honest error won’t cause harm to the company or your reputation.
A framework should support the entire organization
Employees will expect you to walk the talk when it comes to the ethical goals of the company. They will scrutinize everything. They will observe how the framework is developed, introduced, communicated, embedded and – especially – how it is “lived.” The owner and management team must be held to the highest standards.
Small infractions at the top levels in the company will be magnified and judged more harshly, at least in the beginning. Once everyone is rowing in the same direction and people are proud to operate within the framework, then you can begin to work on compassionate responses as people go through the learning process.
As always, integrity starts at the top. There are no shortcuts. Building a long-lasting ethical framework is like pouring the foundation for a house that is meant to last. Plan what you’d like the results to look like, choose the best elements, follow excellent processes, and don’t rush. Being an ethical company means your framework must support and guide everyone – and demonstrate the organization’s highest ideals, both now and in the future. Build it to last... because integrity matters.
Rock LaManna helps label, printing and graphics company owners make better decisions. If you are ready to sell your business or improve your bottom line, integrity matters! Email Rock@ RockLaManna for a confidential discussion.