With stories of corruption consistently appearing in headlines, many people see the truth in the adage that power corrupts. Business leaders possess a great deal of power, and the ways in which they choose to wield that power has a major impact on how peers, employees, and clients perceive them. When individuals act with integrity according to clearly defined principles, they earn the trust of people around them. Therefore, business leaders need to intentionally establish themselves as ethical leaders and model the type of behavior that they expect from other people at the organization. In this way, ethics and honesty become an ingrained part of the company.
Some tips to keep in mind while intentionally establishing a culture of ethics include the following:
Create a formal statement of ethics and values.
One way that business leaders can make ethics a topic of regular conversation at the company is by creating a formal values statement. With a formal document, leaders know exactly what values they should use to guide their actions and decisions. Similarly, employees know what to expect from their leaders and can look to the document when they face their own decisions.
This should be a living document that is open to perpetual review in order to give all individuals a chance to weigh in on it, especially as the company navigates gray areas. Moreover, the core tenants may change as the company expands or evolves.
Recognize when people make difficult ethical decisions.
Not all ethical decisions are easy to make. When employees face really hard decisions, choosing the effortless path rather than the ethical path can prove more tempting than one might think. Leaders who see employees at a crossroads should take the time to recognize individuals who take the correct, if more difficult, path. If people seem to make the wrong decision, leaders can speak to them about the values of the company and then reward those employees who decide to admit their mistake and attempt to learn from what happened. Ethics is a process, and open communication is important. Recognizing employees who make ethical decisions reinforces the notion that the company takes its values seriously, and rewarding those who admit mistakes demonstrates a leniency and understanding that encourages other people to right their own wrongs.
Embrace a policy of transparency in decision-making.
When business leaders operate behind closed doors, they can rouse suspicion even if they have nothing to hide. A better policy is to keep one’s door open at all times. Speaking openly with employees not only makes them feel valued, but it also builds trust and confidence. Individuals want to have confidence in the companies that they work for and may look for other opportunities if they believe the organization has violated this trust. Leaders should also welcome any employee concerns to show what it means to be open about ethical problems. If an employee raises an important issue, it could be worthwhile to talk about it in front of the whole company to maintain absolute transparency.
Communicate a clear vision for the future.
No organization is perfect, and leaders who make it seem like the company has no flaws risk losing their employees’ trust. Ideally, leaders should recognize the problems that exist in their organization, acknowledge them openly, and then share a vision for what the company might look like once it has addressed those issues. Doing so creates an objective for the entire team to work toward and can encourage employees to share their own strategic ideas for reaching that goal. In this way, everyone at the company feels a degree of ownership of the vision and keeps it in mind with every action that they take.
Incorporate ethics into everyday conversations.
Too often, well-intentioned business leaders create a program to encourage ethical behavior in employees and then never follow up on their team’s ethical development. This action signals to employees that values are important but not important enough to take priority over other tasks. Leaders need to understand that ethical stances are continually evolving as the marketplace changes. The rapid development of technology has introduced a number of new and complicated ethical questions to virtually every industry. For this reason, leaders should always relate new decisions or predicaments back to established values and ask whether the company’s framework needs to shift to accommodate a new approach to business.
Remain aware of how decisions impact other people.
Ethical leaders need to keep in mind that every decision they make has a direct or indirect impact on the people around them. Even when they make decisions according to established ethical codes, they might need to discuss those decisions with certain parties. These preemptive conversations ensure that everyone remains on the same page and prevents people from feeling left out of the loop or sacrificed for the greater good of the company. Leaders may think that the consistency of their actions speaks for them, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, a little proactive empathy goes a long way in maintaining an open and supportive culture.