Who Owns Ethics in Your Organization?

Dec. 15, 2016

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I had the privilege of giving two talks on ethics the last couple of years. One was for the annual Integrity Summit in Phoenix, AZ. The other was for the Southern Arizona Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Both talks were on creating a culture of integrity in organizations and converged onto a final question of “Who owns ethics in your organization?”

The easy answer to this question is “everyone does!” I imagine if I polled a dozen CEOs with my question, the idea that everyone owns ethics is likely to be the most common answer. And from an ideal perspective, we want everyone to own ethics and integrity. It should be something we all think about. But the reality is we don’t. Most of the time, ethics is an afterthought or something that we consider when an ethical dilemma slaps us in the face. Pressures to perform and generate results, financial bottom lines and budget numbers, deadlines and commitments – these are all much more tangible and immediate concerns to most employees and managers. Ethics is an afterthought.

We do the same thing in business schools. I can’t tell you the number of my colleagues at other schools (and I won’t mention the schools) who say “Oh, we don’t have an ethics class, we build that into every class.” But I have seen the syllabi and text books. There are 16 chapters devoted to management or marketing or accounting principles, and one that is devoted to ethical considerations. It is an afterthought as if to say “And you should also consider ethics.”

The irony is the CEOs are right. Everyone should own ethics. And my colleagues are right. Ethics should be part of every business class. But to do this, we need to make integrity and ethics part of the culture – of organizations and of business schools. Culture comes from signs and symbols in our organizations. It comes from stories, myths, and shared history. But fundamentally it comes from the people. Culture is embedded in all of us.

To create a culture of integrity we need to bring ethics out from the shadows and into the foreground. We need to celebrate ethical achievements the same way we celebrate sales and quarterly earnings. We need to evaluate people on ethical conduct and give it just as much weight as performance. And we need to discipline ethical lapses, even those lapses that don’t result in negative outcomes, the same way we discipline performance problems. We need to make sure that everyone owns ethics. You see, when I ask the question “who owns ethics in your organization?” the emphasis is on ownership. That means that we as leaders need to make sure that everyone owns ethics. We need to make it part of our culture.

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