Things fall into place after companies do what's right

Dartmouth College professor Paul Argenti said Wednesday at the Ethisphere Institute's annual conference that many corporate leaders aren't all that concerned about morality.

NEW YORK: Dartmouth College professor Paul Argenti told attendees of the Ethisphere Institute's second annual Best Practices in Ethics Communications workshop on Wednesday that many executives don't believe morality is something they need to be concerned with.

Argenti, a professor of corporate communication and corporate responsibility at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, quoted a line from Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. The author described ascending a mountain, and wrote, “above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality.”

In the C-suite, similar thinking takes place. Top executives tend to believe morality is not something they need to think much about, he said.

“Trust is at an all-time low,” he said. “There is nothing more important than trying to think about having trust if you want to have people think about you as an ethical company or to be a responsible citizen of the world.”

In terms of communications ethics, if companies simply do the right thing, everything else falls into place, Argenti said.

“From a communications perspective, we tend to think about things in terms of how they affect our reputation, because that is something that has tremendous value,” he said. “[Reputation] is the largest and most important asset everyone has.”

Argenti cited Johnson & Johnson as an example of a company that “did the right thing when something went wrong” during the Tylenol crises of 1982 and 1986, and Enron as the poster child of the 21st century for a company on the other end of the spectrum.

“Too many companies say, ‘We did what was legal, and that's all we needed to do.' When we think about that, that's not the right way to look at it,” he said.

Implementing an ethical strategy creates value for companies by attracting and retaining talent, influencing consumer decisions, increasing profit, aiding with risk management for shareholders, and building stronger relationships within communities, Argenti added.

But the key to successfully implementing ethics in an organization's workflow is clear and concise communication. When companies clearly communicate and build a positive ethical culture, employees feel a sense of responsibility and accountability for their actions and for the actions of others.

Other benefits are that employees freely raise issues without fear of retaliation, managers model the behaviors they demand of others and they communicate the importance of integrity when making difficult decisions, Argenti said. Leadership also understands pressure points driving unethical behavior and develops processes to identify and remedy those areas where pressure points occur, he added.

“It isn't about policies and procedures in the end that allows us to communicate ethics across the C-suite; it is much more about people,” Argenti said. “You need to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

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