Ethics conversation cannot wait

You've all seen the media campaigns that encourages parents to talk to their kids about drugs.

You've all seen the media campaigns that encourages parents to talk to their kids about drugs.

The message is simple: Have the conversation. Start a dialogue with your children about drugs. It will not only foster an atmosphere of trust, but it also may save your child's life.

Despite the stakes, not all parents engage in that conversation. They push it off until "tomorrow," only to have time slip by until they discover their child is using drugs or, worse yet, they lose one to addiction or death.

When it comes to ethics, most organizations have the same bad habit of waiting to have the conversation. Think about corporate culture for a moment. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edgar Schein defines it as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."

Unless we make mistakes or until assumptions become invalid, we're not inclined to be proactive. We're practically wired that way - both as individuals and as organizations. Most companies would respond by saying they care about ethics, and many of them do, but only in the same way many parents behave when it comes to addressing teen drug use. It may come up once in a while, but it's hardly front and center.

When one considers the competitive pressures that burden today's organizations, there's too little time to reflect, let alone take proactive action. It's hard enough just focusing on the challenges of the day.

For public corporations, compound this with the internal rigors of constantly having to outperform the previous quarter. While senior management may not direct or condone unethical actions, employees too often believe they have no choice. They feel the need to do whatever it takes to achieve the desired results, just to keep their jobs. Under those circumstances, it's easy for ethical behavior to take a backseat. Hyper-competitive environments, such as Enron, were particularly vulnerable to that dynamic.

It may be worth borrowing a page from Dell. Michael Dell decided to have the conversation. He told his employees that how one achieves objectives is just as important as achieving them. This combined goal was built into the company's employee review process and weighs heavily on raises and bonuses. Senior management even went as far as sharing the findings of their own performance appraisals with their direct reports.

Dell wanted his people to know he was serious about ethics. Ethics is not only codified in a document called "The Soul of Dell," which was written in 2002, but is integrated into the employees' everyday work life. Ethics at Dell is an ongoing conversation.

Just imagine if we all brought the same level of commitment to ethics as we do to financial results and other important metrics. Think of a world where in business, politics, and in our everyday lives, we cared as much about how we win as we do with winning itself.

To get there, it's time for all of us to take a breath and have the conversation about ethics now. Let's not wait until tomorrow.

Leo Bottary is an SVP of the corporate practice and US director of client services at Hill & Knowlton. Based in Tampa, FL, he authors the blog Client Service Insights.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in