The high road in this commandment describes a commitment to and consistency with ethical behavior in the working environment. Even beyond the workplace, it is the application of value sets to daily decision making and interactions with the team being lead. It is also a core competency related to protecting the credibility of the leader.
First, a little background and contrast. Ethics are not morals. Morality is a very personal code of behavior that is individually owned. Morality has fluidity based on social and societal norms that change over time. Imagine for a minute the reaction to Brittney Spears if she appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the 1960’s. Imagine the lack of reaction if Elvis Pressley appeared on TRL (this is an MTV show for my more experienced readers) and gyrated his pelvis. Society and media will tend to have influence on relative morality and how certain personal behaviors are accepted or not accepted.
Morality is also greatly influenced by upbringing, parents, other relatives of influence, religion, school and geographic region. The most unique aspect of morality is that it is owned solely by the individual. You own your moral values.
By contrast, ethics are a prescribed set of values that are owned by an organization or company. That entity, your employer, tells you what is ethical behavior and what is not ethical behavior. Some organizations do a better job of clarity and communication of these ethics than others but each organization has ethical coding.
When discussing ethics, the word prescribed becomes an important characteristic. If you go to a medical doctor with a hold, he or she prescribes a medication related to that illness and a medication that will, hopefully, cure that illness. Like that doctor visit, an ethical value is prescribed to a particular behavior in hopes of curing or eliminating that behavior. No organization has a crystal ball that will predict all future ethical lapses so they react to inappropriate behaviors by prescribing an ethical value.
To illustrate that point, imagine about ten years ago when internet access become widespread on every team member’s desktop. When an executive walked by someone’s screen and in horror discovered an employee viewing a less than appropriate image, internet use policy was born. The first company wide email inviting everyone over for a Tupperware party begat email use policy. Event occurs and the organization prescribes an ethical value.
Ethics also have another unique dynamic related to people. Ethics and ethical values are only as good as the people that operate within the organization. For every prescribed ethic, there may be a person trying to thwart the value and the system designed to track ethical behaviors. This means to be a truly ethical organization, values must be synchronized to the hiring and screening process of new team members.
Like morals, ethics have a variety of influences. The most common influence in ethics is the industry type. Highly regulated industries such as banking, utilities, public safety, engineering and insurance will often have a much more formal and rigid set of ethical values. They will also frequency have very elaborate systems in place for tracking and insuring compliance with those values. Other industry types often do not have the degree of formality or depth associated with ethics.
Other important influences include the senior leadership team of an organization and their commitment to ethical practices and their personal value set. This influence is most important when it comes to the enforcement of ethical codes and the consistency in which ethical violations are handled. Senior leaders without strong ethical commitments will often make inconsistent judgments related to a violation or even look the other way in certain circumstances while those senior leaders with high ethical commitment will be consistent in judgment and constant in their vigilance.
The bottom line is that you own your morality and the company or organization owns and prescribes the ethical behavior.
Communicating Ethical Values
To any organization and any leader, the biggest challenge in ethics is in clearly and consistently communicating values.
The best run organizations with the highest commitment to ethics use a multi-tiered approach. The first step is the creation of core organizational values. These values become the foundation for all future ethical polices and statements. Usually somewhere between five and ten value statements are enough to describe what is important to the organization and not too voluminous so team members cannot lock onto some key aspects of them. Value statements need to be written and documented in a very simple and straight-forward manner. Use action statements and highlight the most significant word in the statement.
Behind core values is the creation, implementation and enforcement of a code of conduct. A code of conduct is a more detailed listing of both required and prohibited behaviors for all team members. Typically, this is a pretty fluid listing and it is revisited and updated often. An often overlooked dynamic is that an organization can use multiple levels of a code of conduct. There can be one for the entire company and others at department and division levels based on their unique needs or business practices. When the multiple tier approach is used, it is important to make sure the lower tier conduct rules are as strong or stronger than the higher level or corporate level rules.
A key element with a code of conduct is communicating the rules to all team members on a regular basis. Twice a year with an acknowledgement of understanding is a good rule of thumb. For team members to embrace these ethical standards, they must see them regularly.
This next little part is tough to talk about. One of the best ways to communicate and reinforce ethical values with team members is when a team member is terminated or aggressively disciplined for a violation. The myth of secrecy regarding these events is just that. Depending on the organization, within days, hours or minutes, most team members will hear the story of how someone was fired for insubordination. The flow of this story and team talk about it will often serve as important reminders about the importance of ethical conduct.
By contrast, the message sent when it is widely known that someone “got let off the hook” in reference to an ethical lapse is also powerful. The exceptions granted and the leniency given will also tell team members how serious you and your organization regard company ethics.
The most important method of communicating ethical rules to team members is through the example provided by company leadership. Including you, all supervisors, managers and executives, how you “walk the talk” is more powerful than value statements, codes of conduct or policies. Your, and all leader’s, examples are the best method of communicating the commitment to ethics.
The Cocktail of Morality and Ethics
Morality is owned by the individual and ethical standards are owned by the organization and the two should not mix.
Personal morality is just that; personal.
Imagine a fundamentalist Christian with a strong belief about homosexuals. That individual could struggle with sound and legal decisions related to the hiring, promotion and fair treatment of that team member if they do not check their personal morality at the door. Most company’s ethical values would require that that team member is treated equitably and have the same rights of any other team member.
Your personal morality includes the desire to date any other single person in the geographic area. Including team members within the organization. Including high profile community members. Including people you met on the internet. Corporate ethics require you to be above reproach. As a leader you need to set the example for all others in your organization.
The juggling act here is a little complicated and you have to balance your rights with your responsibilities. The short answer is to curb your personal needs and desires for the greater good of following the ethical guidelines of the organization.
The Most Common Ethical Challenges for Leaders
Ethical challenges for leaders come in all sizes and shapes. The most common challenge relates to the appearance of favoritism and the impact of that in the working environment.
Real favoritism is a devastating phenomenon. Favoritism is the open disparate treatment of subordinate team members in favor of another or other team members. Favoritism can suck the life out of a working unit. It will kill morale. It will segment team members against each other.
As damaging as real favoritism is the appearance of favoritism. This most often occurs when a leader attempts to maintain a friendship with one or more of their subordinate team members. It begins as a peer level friendship and then one friend is promoted and they attempt to maintain the friendship.
This never works. It may look like it is working but it never works. People will say things such as “we know the roles at work” or “she respects that I am the boss at work and we never cross over into our personal relationship.” Those statements are self-serving and naďve. No matter how you try, a friendship with a subordinate will cause grief and create an ethical dilemma.
The first thing you must consider is what the other team members see and feel. Regardless of your protests, they will always see an insider and someone who has your ear. Every decision you make will be questioned related to the maintained friendship. Divisions and segments will develop that may not be able to be repaired.
To be effective and to eliminate this ethical challenge, the effective leader rises and separates from friendships at subordinate levels. They leave all questions about equitable and fair treatment behind by closing off the friend level relationships they had at a peer level.
Keeping Your Word and Keeping Your Mouth Shut
In ethical behavior, it is often what you don’t say that matters the most.
Leaders know things. They know things that others do not. They know about the issues of their team members. They know about strategic changes and organizational challenges in their company. They know some deep secrets.
One of the great tests of ethical behavior in leadership is when told not to share information, you don’t share the information. No matter how interesting and no matter how you perceive the information’s importance. Effective leaders are a black hole of confidential information. The data goes in but does not come out.
Many leaders error when they have a trusted person in the organization and share the confidential information with only them. Unfortunately, you lose control of the flow of the information once you share it. Can you say for certain that the information will not be shared? Do you know absolutely if a spouse or another trusted source will not slip?
When asked to keep something confidential, that core promise and your response will largely shape your credibility as a leader.
Over Promised and Under Delivered
Another relatively common ethical challenge for leaders is over-promising and under-delivering. This is an ethical challenge because it affect the leader’s core credibility and their trustworthiness.
Over-promising is providing commitments to team members that cannot reasonably be fulfilled. Sometimes that takes on the form of promising raises, promising promotions or intimating that someone will be taken care of for the duration of their employment. This mistake is frequently done by newer leaders in their orgy to please others and impress their new subordinates.
Under-delivery is similar to over-promising but it is not providing the basic expected elements required of business leaders. Common examples include late performance reviews, not processing vacation requests and not submitting employee names for requested training. Like over-promising, credibility and trust are affected and the choices made are ethical challenge points for leaders.
Doing the Right Thing
The rarest of leadership ethical challenges is when a person faces a crossroad of doing the right thing compared to either the self-serving, expedient or organization’s desired outcome.
Fortunate that it is rare but managers and supervisor report facing this choice set at least once in their career. An example is when your boss demands that one of your subordinates be terminated. You know that she is being railroaded out because she has questioned some of your boss’s decisions in the past. She has not been provided with adequate coaching and there are other team members that should be let go before her.
The right thing is to stand up for the rights of this team member and confront your boss about this demand to terminate her. It is not self-serving, expedient or the organization’s desired outcome.
Another example would be that you are aware of harassment in another department. The victim is unwilling to report it and if you report it, you could face retaliation or even job loss. The right thing is to report the harassment regardless of consequences.
The entire ethical challenge of doing the right thing is about connecting your sense of right and wrong with the ethical values of your organization. Do you want to work for an organization that terminates people unfairly or tolerates harassment? Is it worth standing up for the concepts of right or wrong? Is standing up for others a noble cause or career suicide?
Only you can answer those questions.
The Quid Pro Quo Transaction
Quid pro quo is Latin which means something for something. If you scratch my back, I will scratch yours. The concept is as old as time itself.
In the working environment it becomes a little fuzzier. For sake of contrast, most of us would never accept an envelope of cash for granting a significant favor within our organization. But, and here is the fuzzy part, we generally welcome Christmas gifts from vendors, free dinners and trinkets of various values. In the acceptance of each of those examples the quid pro quo transaction has been completed.
One of the most interesting ethical challenges in quid pro quo is that acceptance of the terms of the favor granter or gift bearer is not needed for quid pro quo to be established. The vendor bearing the expensive wine basket during the holidays does not attach a little card that expresses “with acceptance of this gift and consumption of the wine and cheese, you agree to grant me favorable treatment for years to come.” With that disclosure you may well rethink the acceptance of the gift. When the gift or favor is accepted, you agree to the terms of the giver, even when not disclosed.
Quid pro quo transactions many times do not involve significant favors requested in return. Many times the only thing that is wanted is increased access, quicker return of phone calls or maybe just a favorable word.
Ethical Litmus Tests
There are several ways to tell if you have made good ethical decisions or not. The most simple is a three step test that can be used by individuals for simple decisions or by entire organizations for more far-sweeping decisions.
The first step is the gut check. Sometimes known as the butterfly test or the sleep test, this simply asks whether you can live with the decision comfortably without life interruption. If stomach butterflies, tormented sleep or great anxiety exists, the decision likely has some ethical problems and may not conform with your company’s values. By contrast, if sleep, eating and life are not a problem, your decision was probably ethically correct.
There is one problem with this test because it requires a conscience. With people that have no conscience, personal value set or the ability to shrug away any concern with poor ethical choices, this test will not work effectively. One other challenge related to this ethical test step is that group decisions will often eliminate any guilt associated with the poor ethical choice. The personal reconciliation point is that the other two committee members voted for it so my responsibility is eliminated.
The second ethical litmus test is the authority test. This test asks how you would feel is someone in authority or someone that you hold in high regard would feel about your decision. A boss, your spouse, a trusted friend. How would they react to your choice? What would they say? Would they be supportive or would they question your actions? Would they be proud of you or disappointed in you? Those are the key questions that make this test step work.
Some organizations have actually codified this test step by creating an ethics officer or ethics manager in their company. Usually found in larger companies which also have to deal with a highly regulated environment, these people are the person in authority that adjudges decisions and directions as ethical or not. It is the responsibility of the ethics officer to ask the questions and test decisions against the values of the organization.
The final ethical test is related to media coverage. How would it look if your decision was on the front page of the local newspaper? Could you defend your actions to 60 Minutes without slamming the door on Morley Shafer? Would you have to say “no comment” or could you articulate your position clearly? These questions assume that we would choose more carefully if the media were watching our every move.
There is no perfect way to test for ethical treatment and ethical decision but when the three tests are performed sequentially, it is helpful in staying out of trouble. At the end of the day, ethical decisions are made by ethical people and unethical decisions are made by unethical people.
One of the most challenging perspectives for leaders at all levels is the emergence of gray areas in their decision making. The leadership rule of thumb is that as your level rises, the degree of gray in ethics increases.
What that means is that the higher organizationally you rise, the less absolute ethical issues become. Many people struggle with this concept and especially those that have very clear cut and deeply rooted morale beliefs. The reason that gray rises with leadership level is that there are more factors to consider at higher organizational levels. Politics, public relations, investor relations and financial stability are in play and at stake at the highest levels.
Consider this example for a moment. As a line level staff accountant, it would be an offense worthy of termination to misreport financial performance information. To purposefully withhold bad news would cost the staff accountant her job. However, the chief financial officer would be called prudent to withhold information until capital markets closed or until after a large financing transaction were complete. In the latter, many more factors such as long term company viability and the affect on millions of shareholders contributed to the gray in the decision to not release adverse information.
Another example could relate to the decision to fire a team member that did not meet performance standards. At a near line level or at the level of first supervision, this decision is clear cut. He either did or did not meet standards and either should or should not be employed by the company. At higher organizational levels the decision may include strategic relationships, community image or other factors. Black and white versus shades of gray.
As your leadership responsibility increases so will the gray thatching.