Many people are used to reading or hearing of the moral benefits of attention to business ethics. However, there are other types of benefits, as well. The following list describes various types of benefits from managing ethics in the workplace.
1. Attention to business ethics has substantially improved society.
A matter of decades ago, children in our country worked 16-hour days. Workers’ limbs were torn off and disabled workers were condemned to poverty and often to starvation. Trusts controlled some markets to the extent that prices were fixed and small businesses choked out. Price fixing crippled normal market forces. Employees were terminated based on personalities. Influence was applied through intimidation and harassment. Then society reacted and demanded that businesses place high value on fairness and equal rights. Anti-trust laws were instituted. Government agencies were established. Unions were organized. Laws and regulations were established.
2. Ethics programs help maintain a moral course in turbulent times.
Attention to business ethics is critical during times of fundamental change — times much like those faced now by businesses, both nonprofit or for-profit. During times of change, there is often no clear moral compass to guide leaders through complex conflicts about what is right or wrong. Continuing attention to ethics in the workplace sensitizes leaders and staff to how they want to act — consistently.
3. Ethics programs cultivate strong teamwork and productivity.
Ethics programs align employee behaviors with those top priority ethical values preferred by leaders of the organization. Usually, an organization finds surprising disparity between its preferred values and the values actually reflected by behaviors in the workplace. Ongoing attention and dialogue regarding values in the workplace builds openness, integrity and community — critical ingredients of strong teams in the workplace. Employees feel strong alignment between their values and those of the organization. They react with strong motivation and performance.
4. Ethics programs support employee growth and meaning.
Attention to ethics in the workplace helps employees face reality, both good and bad — in the organization and themselves. Employees feel full confidence they can admit and deal with whatever comes their way. Bennett, in his article “Unethical Behavior, Stress Appear Linked” (Wall Street Journal, April 11, 1991, p. B1), explained that a consulting company tested a range of executives and managers. Their most striking finding: the more emotionally healthy executives, as measured on a battery of tests, the more likely they were to score high on ethics tests.
5. Ethics programs are an insurance policy — they help ensure that policies are legal.
There is an increasing number of lawsuits in regard to personnel matters and to effects of an organization’s services or products on stakeholders. As mentioned earlier in this document, ethical principles are often state-of-the-art legal matters. These principles are often applied to current, major ethical issues to become legislation. Attention to ethics ensures highly ethical policies and procedures in the workplace. It’s far better to incur the cost of mechanisms to ensure ethical practices now than to incur costs of litigation later. A major intent of well-designed personnel policies is to ensure ethical treatment of employees, e.g., in matters of hiring, evaluating, disciplining, firing, etc. Drake and Drake (California Management Review, V16, pp. 107-123) note that “an employer can be subject to suit for breach of contract for failure to comply with any promise it made, so the gap between stated corporate culture and actual practice has significant legal, as well as ethical implications.”
6. Ethics programs help avoid criminal acts “of omission” and can lower fines.
Ethics programs tend to detect ethical issues and violations early on so they can be reported or addressed. In some cases, when an organization is aware of an actual or potential violation and does not report it to the appropriate authorities, this can be considered a criminal act, e.g., in business dealings with certain government agencies, such as the Defense Department. The recent Federal Sentencing Guidelines specify major penalties for various types of major ethics violations. However, the guidelines potentially lowers fines if an organization has clearly made an effort to operate ethically.
7. Ethics programs help manage values associated with quality management, strategic planning and diversity management — this benefit needs far more attention.
Ethics programs identify preferred values and ensuring organizational behaviors are aligned with those values. This effort includes recording the values, developing policies and procedures to align behaviors with preferred values, and then training all personnel about the policies and procedures. This overall effort is very useful for several other programs in the workplace that require behaviors to be aligned with values, including quality management, strategic planning and diversity management. Total Quality Management includes high priority on certain operating values, e.g., trust among stakeholders, performance, reliability, measurement, and feedback. Eastman and Polaroid use ethics tools in their quality programs to ensure integrity in their relationships with stakeholders. Ethics management techniques are highly useful for managing strategic values, e.g., expand marketshare, reduce costs, etc. McDonnell Douglas integrates their ethics programs into their strategic planning process. Ethics management programs are also useful in managing diversity. Diversity is much more than the color of people’s skin — it’s acknowledging different values and perspectives. Diversity programs require recognizing and applying diverse values and perspectives — these activities are the basis of a sound ethics management program.
8. Ethics programs promote a strong public image.
Attention to ethics is also strong public relations — admittedly, managing ethics should not be done primarily for reasons of public relations. But, frankly, the fact that an organization regularly gives attention to its ethics can portray a strong positive to the public. People see those organizations as valuing people more than profit, as striving to operate with the utmost of integrity and honor. Aligning behavior with values is critical to effective marketing and public relations programs. Consider how Johnson and Johnson handled the Tylenol crisis versus how Exxon handled the oil spill in Alaska. Bob Dunn, President and CEO of San Francisco-based Business for Social Responsibility, puts it best: “Ethical values, consistently applied, are the cornerstones in building a commercially successful and socially responsible business.”
9. Overall benefits of ethics programs:
Donaldson and Davis, in “Business Ethics? Yes, But What Can it Do for the Bottom Line?” (Management Decision, V28, N6, 1990) explain that managing ethical values in the workplace legitimizes managerial actions, strengthens the coherence and balance of the organization’s culture, improves trust in relationships between individuals and groups, supports greater consistency in standards and qualities of products, and cultivates greater sensitivity to the impact of the enterprise’s values and messages.
10. Last – and most — formal attention to ethics in the workplace is the right thing to do.
What do you think?
(There is much more about ethics and social responsibility in that topic in the Free Management Library.)
Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD – Authenticity Consulting, LLC – 763-971-8890
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