Placing a Premium on Ethics How to Instill a Commitment to Compliance in Your Employees

In a time where many corporations are struggling to maintain or restore stakeholder trust while also seeking ways to enhance their public image, a great deal of emphasis is being placed on organizational ethics.

However, even the most carefully crafted and well-intentioned ethics programs are meaningless unless the company makes a sustained effort to integrate ethics into every aspect of the organization. Any ethics initiative is likely to miss the mark unless employees at all levels feel compelled to make a commitment to an ethical workplace culture.

Top Management Sets the Tone

As with any major initiative, top management bears the ultimate responsibility for instilling a commitment to ethics in employees. In addition to clearly communicating a set of core values that indicate how employees should conduct themselves, top executives must “live” these values by making them a key component of every action they take. In essence, they must set the ethical tone for the rest of the employees through leading by example.

Many companies have taken the important step of creating a code of ethics or conduct, comprised of a written set of organizational behavioral guidelines. To demonstrate to employees that the company is truly committed to ethics, top management should also strongly consider appointing an ethics officer. This individual should have the authority as well as the necessary resources to enforce the company’s code without management interference. The ethics officer should be present at key strategy meetings to ensure that all crucial organizational decisions take into consideration ethical implications.

Incorporating Ethics at the Middle Level

According to, ethical breakdowns are most likely to occur at the middle levels of an organization. Many mid-level managers, feeling the pressure to meet lofty goals and expectations emanating from the top, sometimes believe they must make decisions based on what is best for the bottom line instead of what is ethical.

Since lower level workers typically report to mid-level employees, they tend to model this behavior and view it as acceptable. Therefore, to effectively instill a commitment to ethics in employees throughout the organization, top management must motivate mid-level managers to act in a manner that not only exhibits but reinforces ethical behavior.

Kirk O. Hanson, author of “Ethics and the Middle Manager: Creating Tone in The Middle,” lists eight ways that top management can influence middle managers to “do the right thing” with regard to ethics:

  • Setting the tone with their own actions
  • Asking middle managers to point out common ethical dilemmas which serve as obstacles that prevent a full commitment to ethics within their area of responsibility
  • Giving general guidance to middle managers concerning how to apply the company’s values to ethical dilemmas
  • Delegating the responsibility of resolving ethical dilemmas to middle management
  • Making it clear to middle managers that their ethical and financial performance is being monitored equally
  • Making ethical competence a part of the middle managers’ performance evaluation process
  • Providing mechanisms for middle managers to collaborate with their peers when more challenging ethical dilemmas arise
  • Making themselves accessible to middle managers seeking guidance on difficult ethical decisions

Ensuring a “Grass Roots” Commitment to Ethics

In many companies, the lower-level employees are the ones who have the majority of contact with customers and other stakeholders. Consequently, their actions often reflect the company’s true commitment to ethical behavior. To instill a commitment to ethics at the lowest levels, companies can take a number of actions:

  • Gauging a job candidate’s ethical proclivities during the hiring process by posing hypothetical ethical scenarios during job interviews, thereby weeding out those that are less likely to comply
  • Clearly indicating the organization’s expectations regarding ethical behavior by making ethics training a cornerstone of their overall training program
  • Implementing follow-up ethics training on an ongoing basis, including annual recertification on the code of ethics
  • Placing ethics-related collateral material in lunch rooms, conference rooms and other high-visibility locations
  • Including a mention of the company’s core values in “top-down” communications

Making Integrity the Focus Instead of Compliance

Companies such as Alcoa and Costco have experienced success in instilling a commitment to ethics in their employees by creating an ethics program based on integrity as opposed to compliance. While the latter encourages employees to adhere to a set of externally imposed rules and regulations, the former focuses on self-governance as a means of reaching self-imposed standards of ethical excellence. The result is that employees often develop a shared commitment to the integrity of the workplace instead of simply conforming to rules, creating a more sustainable ethical climate in the process.

For more about implementing ethics integrity vs. ethics compliance programs, read “Strategic Leadership of Ethical Behavior in Business,” by Terry Thomas, John R. Schermerhorn, Jr., and John W. Dienhart

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