Ethical workplace cultures

Peter Wilson AM FCPHR

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written on April 29, 2015

HR can be both a champion and a guardian of ethical cultures on the job. There are eight areas where attention should be focused for sustainable success in these challenging roles.

The best place to start is with recruitment selection and induction procedures; where an employee’s experience with an organisation begins. Immersion in the organisation’s values, with clear examples of acceptable behaviours, is critical. Having leaders form part of these onboarding processes, with examples of what a working life means in the company, sets a strong and self-reinforcing standard for later ethical challenges that are encountered.

Second, the structure and nature of ethical compliance programs are also important. They are best integrated with continuous training and development plans and senior management performance strategies. A common failure is when simplistic carrot-and-stick incentives are attached to one or more ethical behaviours. The broad-based nature and uncertain real-life context of ethics will inevitably thwart such an approach. It’s preferable to emphasise values in the achievement of mission-critical milestones and to avoid simplistic ‘single driver rules’. Case studies and storytelling by managers about prior ethical challenges and how they were resolved is a far superior approach.

Third, pay performance and promotion procedures are all areas where staff look for demonstration of ethical behaviours and outcomes. Ethics should feature in how performance is assessed, and HR should ask itself core ethical questions to check the company’s processes from this perspective. Who is getting developed, promoted and paid? Is preferential treatment evident? Ethical character should weigh more than technical competence and outcomes in assessing what a person achieves.

Fourth, HR can review how leadership role-modelling occurs. ‘Great organisations to work for’ set regular sessions where the leaders talk about the latest ethical challenges and the proposals to tackle them. With input then sought from those at the coalface! Leaders need also to be assessed on how they execute pay performance and promotion decisions, as well as considering evidence of the fairness with which they treat their co-workers.

Fifth, training and development programs are essential to developing the desired workplace culture. Competence and career enhancement for the individual are important baseline considerations, but the glue in these activities needs to come from content that emphasises character formation, and how values are walked and not just talked about. Role playing and case studies of exemplary ethics must remain a focus of HR in putting these programs together.

Sixth, workplace communications and interactions are a rich mechanism for delivering ethical excellence. HR should ensure management is aware of this and that they are being measured and assessed for their quality, and their alignment with the organisation’s preferred values and behaviour set. An important characteristic is to outline challenges facing all your people and to acknowledge that courage in addressing these is not just to be tolerated, but openly encouraged.

Seventh, is cultural surveys, properly designed, with HR’s checks that all critical values and behaviours are captured and measured across all major work units. Of course, measurement without subsequent action is a flawed approach. When substandard performance is identified, a timely remedy needs to be applied.

Lastly, but of paramount importance, is the ‘tone’ set at the very top of an organisation. The executive leadership group should be regularly examining, through peer reviews and other ways, who is being rewarded and how. What are the recruitment, promotion and firing decisions, and what has been learnt from these? What evidence is there of the top people displaying ethical courage and leadership? What is the best way to advance the next stage of the organisation’s ethical journey? HR needs to ensure these questions are on the top-level agenda.

Make a plan and map progress according to these eight areas for a more ethical workplace culture and you are bound to see the progress. The planning is the easy part. Dealing fairly with the tough choices they present is the hard part. But tackling them sustainably is what the most ethical workplaces do, and they are also the highest-performing and best places to work.

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