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January 11, 2012
Is Yours an Ethical Organization?

The Penn State sexual abuse scandal, regardless of the legal outcome, has done enormous damage to the school’s image. And it’s only the latest in a long series of illegal and/or unethical behavior by leaders in many industries and occupations. If you think such problems would never happen in your company, Darnell Lattal urges you to think again.

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It’s a big job. Lattal, who holds a Ph.D. in behavioral science, is president and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels International. And, with Ralph W. Clark, an ethicist, she has co-authored a book, Ethics at Work (Performance Management Publications, 2005). If you’re looking for a quick fix—ethics in six easy steps, let’s say—her book is not the answer. Most people, she advises, work on being ethical throughout their lives.

Part of the reason the process is long and difficult is that changing our own behavior is harder than we think. Any organization that wants to undertake an effort to operate as ethically as possible needs to start at the top, with a commitment from top management, and then gain the support of every level. Lattal stresses that most people believe they are ethical, but they don’t always behave that way. And most are not trying to be bad:

Ethics nearly always involve balancing conflicting values, which is often very hard to do. Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving child? asks Lattal. Probably not, because feeding the child is the higher good, even though the theft is illegal.

Avoid being rule-driven. Rules label certain acts as always wrong (see theft, above). And Lattal emphasizes that ethics are far more complex than that. For example, salespeople sometimes feel—and management may even tell them this—that they must pull out all the stops to sell something. So they may cut corners. Such small steps can ultimately lead to disaster. A very common problem in organizations is that top management talks about high quality and great customer service, but they and other managers don’t walk the talk. What they really want is speed and productivity, and employees soon learn to ignore the talk.

It’s important to be open. Lattal believes it’s imperative that employees feel confident that they report unethical behavior in the company and not be punished for it. Many whistleblowers have experienced retaliation for finding fault, and employees must have the freedom to speak out.

Anonymous hotline reporting and employee surveys can help, but there’s more to it than that. Managers who discourage such reporting should be disciplined—not the whistleblowers themselves. Complaints about roadblocks in the work process or other problems should also be encouraged. But many workplaces have an unspoken rule that complaining isn’t acceptable. Lattal strongly recommends weekly group reviews of the group’s decisions. Outcomes, she notes, are a better guide to how ethical decisions were than the intents behind them.

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