“We’re no longer asking everybody to do the next thing right; but to do the next right thing.” -Dov Seidman
Ethical behavior in the workplace has never been more important, yet companies continue to act as if a workshop or elearning program during onboarding is all an employee needs in order to behave ethically. That might meet the requirements of a regulatory agency, but don’t expect your employees to learn “…to do the next right thing.” A training event, classroom or virtual, is no way to develop ethical behavior in a workforce.
BP’s oil spill. GM’s faulty ignition switches. Takata’s airbag ruptures. Volkswagen’s emissions fraud. Simplicity’s crib deaths. Samsung’s phone fires. Wells Fargo’s customer deception. In each of these cases, somebody knew about the ethical violations long before lives were affected significantly, but company culture at the time either discouraged those individuals from speaking up or motivated leaders to sell products even with the knowledge that the risk of failure and criminal negligence was high. They chose sales and profit over doing the right thing.
I’m sure all of those companies include ethics in their employee training programs and list ethical behavior among the values in their employee handbooks. The problem is not with training compliance; it’s with the way people learn about ethical behavior and the way that behavior is supported by the culture of their companies.
Companies that make ethics a priority, need to be managing minds, not hands. It’s not about getting the task done; it’s about doing the task with integrity. You don’t learn this in a training program, even a highly interactive and gamified program. This means that managers must become facilitators of that learning. People need to learn ethical behavior in the workplace, with all of its ambiguity, tension, pressures, and consequences. People need to be faced with an ethical dilemma and learn from working through that problem in a real life situation, and receive feedback from their managers during the process.
Doing “the next right thing” is also dependent on having a learning culture that supports development of an ethical employee. This is a culture in which managers have the support of corporate leaders who make ethics not only a marketing tag line but also model this value in everything that they do. If leaders are condoning behavior that crosses the line, whether explicitly stated or not, employees will interpret that as permission to behave badly. If the only measure of success is number and amount of sales at the end of the month, people will do whatever they can, ethical or not, to hit those targets. If employees see their male bosses treating women like second-class citizens, they are likely to do the same. We need managers to show employees that ethical behavior in what they say and do every day is an essential aspect of being a successful, respected, 21rst Century company.