Ethics, Integrity, and the Slippery Slope

Some of you may remember when the Baldrige Criteria increased its emphasis on governance, ethics, and integrity. It followed in the wake of the Enron and Tyco scandals that cost thousands of employees their jobs and millions of dollars for their investors. But beyond these scandals, there are other reasons for the Baldrige Excellence framework’s focus on ethics and integrity.

There are really two areas where the Criteria asks about ethics and integrity.  The first is in Item 1.1 where the questions are directed at the executives in an organization, “How do senior leaders’ actions demonstrate their commitment to legal and ethical behavior?  How do senior leaders promote an organizational environment that requires it?” In Item 1.2, the Criteria ask about the systematic processes that address and anticipate legal concerns, and for promoting and ensuring ethical behavior in all interactions.  For both legal and ethical requirements, it also asks to identify measures and goals. Finally, it asks how the organization monitors and responds to breaches of ethical behavior.

It’s pretty easy to make a decision about something that is clearly illegal. However, ethics and integrity issues often present themselves in shades of gray.  Some organizations refer to these as the “front page of the newspaper tests.”  In other words, how would this appear if it were reported on the front page of the news?  But that seems to be a bit murkier these days depending on which newspaper you’re reading.  However, not defining a litmus test for your organization puts you on the precipice of the slippery slope, and it’s a long, painful climb back up to regain a tarnished reputation.

So how do you convey to your employees your expectations for legal and ethical behavior, with the highest degree of integrity?  As I’m sure you already know, this isn’t a circumstance where words, exhortations, posters on conference room walls, and annual training are sufficient. You have to serve as the personal role model, every day, in every occasion, whether you believe anyone is noticing or not.

I’ve been on several site visits to Baldrige Award recipients. Because of their importance as representing role model organizations, examiners always pay attention to not only the processes surrounding legal and ethical behavior but the underlying culture.  Employees at “award-worthy” organizations can describe not just the policies and procedures but countless examples of how those have been made real by the senior leaders of the organization.

I often think that true empowerment is a gift to leaders as well as employees. If you were confident that you had the right processes, measures, and training in place as well as a culture of ethics and integrity, wouldn’t you be able to trust your employees to do the right thing in any circumstance?  And if you don’t have that confidence, no amount of monitoring and oversight will protect you and your organization.

Is your organization an ethical one? Do you lead with integrity?  How do you know?

And do you hold the leaders of other types of organizations accountable for their ethics and integrity? We all have that responsibility.

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