Creating an Ethics-Driven Organization

You can’t create an ethical organization overnight, but you can start overnight, and once you start, you’ll find lots of opportunities to teach the code.
by | July 20, 2010

I recently offered a wallet-sized code of ethics to replace -- or at least, mitigate -- the bureaucratic system of rules, supervision and oversight that stifles initiative and deadens workers' spirits. The ethical guides were simple:

I will:

  • Do my best at work
  • Avoid conflict of interest
  • Speak truth to power
  • Be a good citizen
  • Shun any private gain from public employment
  • Act impartially
  • Treat others the way I would like to be treated
  • Report waste, fraud, and corruption

When in doubt, my test is can I explain my actions to my mother or to my child.

Many people are hungry for this sort of simple, straightforward guide and have asked me how they can introduce such a tool in their organizations. Here's what to do next:

  • Decide on your organization's principles of ethical behavior.
  • Print wallet-size cards (plastic is best) and hand them out like crazy.
  • Teach: look for coachable moments to align people with the principles.

First, what's right for your organization? Chances are the "Metropolis" code isn't perfect for you. Give the workers a chance to own the code. Announce that you're in the market for a new code of ethics that can fit on a wallet-size card. Offer a $100 prize (your $100!) for the best one submitted, and reserve to yourself the right to pick the winning entry and to make edits you deem necessary. This, because even in a participatory process, the leader must ultimately be responsible for setting standards. After you do your edits, let a couple of trusted writers and thinkers have a crack at it.

Second, print the code on durable wallet-size cards that you'd be proud to carry in your wallet. If you have an organization mission statement you might put it on the back, but don't overpower the ethics code. Print enough so that everybody in your organization and all your stakeholders can have a few for their friends. Celebrate the adoption of the code with an all-hands party: a simple end-of-the-day snacks-and-soft drinks is fine.

Now you have a real code of ethics -- the principles of behavior that I call the unenforceables. But you can't forget the enforceable rules of conduct: don't take bribes, don't favor friends, don't accept gifts over a certain value, etc. These are rules that must be followed by all, and you don't want to give anybody the impression that your code of ethics softens these rules. Make sure everybody knows the rules, but remember, people will take more pride in an ethical organization than in one that's merely noncriminal. So, don't conflate the ethics code with the enforceable rules.

Third is the real work, getting everyone to put the principles into practice. Your all-hands meeting was a good start; now follow up in your staff meetings, and ask your direct reports to talk about ethics in their meetings. If you look for coachable moments you'll find lots of them, in customer complaints, performance counseling, agenda setting and answering mail.

I found that people really started to take me seriously about ethics when I started to talk about my own missteps: Tolerating a subordinate who was a solid producer but who abused his staff; going along with the boss rather than telling him he was wrong; or any number of instances where you failed to perform at the highest ethical standards.

You'll increase your credibility if you talk about your missteps, or how in retrospect you see that you behaved unethically. If you can't think of any such situations, think harder. Look at the Metropolis code and measure your past actions against it: you won't have much trouble remembering times when you got it wrong. I certainly don't.

And keep at it. You can't create an ethical organization overnight, but you can start overnight, and once you start, you'll find lots of opportunities to teach the code. Most people in the organization will feel better about working there, and the few who won't will start thinking about going somewhere where ethical behavior isn't encouraged. And you'll be on the way to an ethics-driven organization.

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