Last week I had a nice chat with Emily Miner who works in the Ethics Practice at LRN Corp. as an Ethics consultant. Ethics, at least when applied to employee behavior, is the practice of assuring employee behavior is consistent with the company’s values for every job type and every job level. Since many, if not most, companies don’t have a clear set of values, even coming up with ethical guidelines that are consistent with those values is problematic.
The reason you want Ethics as an enforced set of rules governing behavior is to avoid the kinds of problems that result in litigation, regulation, significant fines, criminal charges, or even company failure that can result from behavior the government, stock holders, customers or employees would object to.
I was an Internal Auditor for IBM for several years and one of the recurring problems was that employees often didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to do when confronted with an ethical dilemma and then made a related decision that forced their employment to be terminated.
Every company should have a solid Ethical Code of conduct. Here is how LRN Corp. goes about helping companies develop one.
Solidifying company values
What does your company value? What are its moral imperatives? Without knowing the answer to that, employees can’t make ethical decisions. What makes the process even more confusing is the fact that the values a company operates under can be very different between Sales and Accounting, and between rank-and-file employees and executive management. Those differences can lead to significant problems with regard to consistent company behavior and make defending what a decision-maker believes is an ethical decision nearly impossible.
To develop a company’s Ethical Policy foundation (policies apply to rules followed internally, while strategies apply to rules followed externally), consultants from LRN meet with and survey employees across the company to provide a clear and consistent set of values that the company mostly practices and accepts as its own.
They use tools like Memia, Zoom, and Teams to build that consensus both in large group meetings and in individual breakouts that might deal with the nuanced differences between levels and departments. To get understanding and eventual compliance across the company they use employee surveys.
And given none of this will work without executive support, a great deal of effort is spent convincing executive management that the effort is critical to the firm’s success and to get their overt support for the effort.
Unionized shops can pose a unique problem because, in effect, a unionized shop has a redundant management structure that needs to be addressed, but if you don’t get support by both labor and executive management, the effort will fail, as this must be a set of rules created, adopted and enforced across the company regardless of department or management level.
The result of this work is a set of ethical rules that apply to every employee, coupled with training and participation metrics that are required of each employee to both reinforce and document compliance with these rules. The LRN engagements are multi-year as a result, and while they begin by helping define the ethics that a firm runs by, they continue, if needed, to assure that these new policies are both effectively communicated and enforced during the time of engagement, and to assure they will continue to be enforced once the engagement is over.
According to Emily Miner, LRN has won several awards for its work, and LRN’s customer satisfaction scores exceed 85% in the firms it engages with. If a customer isn’t happy, LRN stays engaged (if the customer allows it) until an acceptable solution is achieved.
It is interesting to note that some of LRN’s greatest successes are in areas that are regionally ethically compromised, like South America. This is because there are company leaders in these crime-ridden areas that want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, so they are driving ethical projects into their companies to improve the overall ethical practices across their countries.
Wrapping up: Creating an ethical company
LRN Corp. has an interesting ethical consultancy that has successfully helped many relatively large companies grapple with the subject and develop an enforceable set of policies to assure their firms don’t get into trouble. The process is lengthy and can involve a large percentage of the employees, but that means the policies come from inside the company, not from the consultants, and thus become rules the firm wants to follow. It is always easier to enforce a rule that people want to follow over one that they don’t.
Strong, enforced ethical policies are critical for keeping a company whole, scandal-free, and out of the eyes of enforcement agencies. Done right, they can improve working conditions, improve the firm’s image and even result in better, more customer-focused products and services. If you don’t know what your company’s values are or are unaware of its ethics policies, you are looking at a future of trouble. Avoiding that trouble is what LRN Corp’s Ethical Practice work is focused on fixing.