Infusing Ethics Into Your Organization

There has been so much written about the need for ethics and ethical behaviors in organizations, and most people, when approached with the subject show body language that says “I know it – I’d do it – don’t talk to me about it.”

Yet, we continue to have daily ethical dilemmas that threaten our personal and our business success. Sometimes the ethical challenges come from the top of the organization through pressures on profits, sometimes they come from the middle levels of an organization by middle managers who don’t really get the whole integrity thing; sometimes it comes with individuals who are just trying to keep their jobs.

The question is, what is the best way to infuse ethical behavior at all levels of your business?

There are generally three ways that organizations deal with the promotion of business ethics:

  1. passive ignorance
  2. compliance based
  3. values based

The businesses who take the passive approach of essentially ignoring the promotion of ethical behavior run the risk of each person adopting his or her own standards. I call it benign neglect. Unfortunately, there are still many companies out there who take this approach. The leadership just “hopes” that people will do the right thing.

The second approach is a compliance based approach. I liken this to the leadership essentially telling the constituents what they must do. They must be ethical. They must have the integrity. They must not do anything in illegal. This approach is more a fear based approach – meaning that people will behave ethically to avoid discipline or retribution. People are punished for doing the wrong thing. While this approach is better than passive ignorance, it is akin to telling someone what to do but not why. It is very difficult for any organization to develop rules for every possible potential ethical dilemma. This is where the compliance based ethical promotion can fail.

The final approach, and the one that really works, it is values based. This means that everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, understands the ethical values of the company. They know why the ethical values were established, they know what they are, and what they mean. These values guide each person in the organization, and give them a roadmap that enables the handling of ethical dilemmas. It is a motivational approach to infusing ethical behavior. Ethical behavior is rewarded, and noticed. People support each other in their ethical behaviors. In my view, this is the best way to infuse ethics into any organization.

So, how do we infuse a values based ethical culture?

I hope you don’t groan when I suggest this, but it is very important to articulate and establish the values for the company, in written form. Yes, written. How you do this is up to you; sometimes the leadership team develops these, sometimes an employee group puts them together with feedback from the an entire organization, sometimes there is a group process that feeds upward within the organization. What matters is that you have your values articulated and available for all.

Just writing them down or posting them does not infuse them into your culture. It is important that values, whether they are personal or organizational, are lived. When the leaders of the organization model the behavior is each and every day, people will learn by watching. When managers and supervisors share values regularly at staff meetings, the goal remains present. Periodic case studies can go a long way to helping those in the organization embrace the values that bring the right decisions. Use your creativity to keep your values present…

Having each person live the values of the organization will go a long way in infusing ethical behavior, top-down, inside out. Ethics should not be a process or a program. Ethical orientation works best when it is a culture. That is why living your ethical values, every day, works.

So, how about your organization? How valued is ethical behavior? Does each person and brace and live your values? Do you?

About the Author: Marsha Egan, CPCU, PCC is CEO of The Egan Group, Inc., a Reading, PA based professional coaching firm. She is a certified executive coach and professional speaker, specializing in leadership development and can be reached at marsha@ or visit

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