woensdag 28 november 2012

Ethical codes: A catalyst for responsible behaviour or a waste of paper?

Being part of an international organisation with offices in about 100 different countries and a workforce with 150 nationalities, I have witnessed a growing stack of rules on professional and ethical behaviour. The more the organisation grew in staff numbers and subsequent cross-border mobility, the more need for employee compliance, partially imposed by the environments we operate in. Partially. As a value-based organisation, the majority of rules are self-imposed.

Did all these ethical rules help create a safer environment with less workplace issues?

I am not about to disclose any sensitive information, but I can tell you that we most probably behave as an average organisation. So let me just put it to you bluntly: There is no evidence that ethical rules lead to better performance or a friendlier atmosphere. It is more likely that an organisation's core values and mission attracts people with compatible personal values, allowing communal values to exist which in turn foster the office culture. This makes it hard to justify the existence of ethical codes.

Will a person who has difficulties controlling his/her anger behave less aggressive with a protocol in place? Will a corrupted person then operate with more integrity? Not very likely.

An ethical code could assist employees in understanding the difference between 'right' and 'wrong', and applying that understanding to their decisions. But then again, how many errors can you make in a professional environment by not knowing the ethical rules? Or, not very uncommon, what if the rules do not give you a black and white answer to an issue?

If you want to create a safer environment, here are 3 Lessons-learnt from my experience:

1. Make values tangible
If decisions are better when made within the ethical frame of an organisation, then it would make sense to recruit on personal values that are compatible with the organisation or a particular trade. Use them as criteria with higher value than knowledge or skills. It will proof harder to change values as opposed to enhance someone's knowledge and skills. Evidently the organisation's leaders relentlessly make decisions that touch base with core values.

2. Create an open environment for raising concerns
An open door, I know. Though I want to stress that a nonjudgemental approach is paramount. Behaviours are best discussed on the impact that they have on one's environment, team dynamics, results etc. An open environment also implies that dealing with ethical concerns should not be delegated to some committee somewhere in a far corner of your organisation. They should be discussed at the heart of your organisation, preferably on the workfloor.

3. Show zero-tolerance for misconduct
Once someone has portrayed questionable behaviour, it needs to be addressed. The worst thing a leader can do is disconnect from the issue and allow for it to evolve to an endemic situation. This does not imply that one should always respond with discipline (often why codes exist). Sometimes it is even not necessary to address the individual directly, in private or public. Nevertheless the behaviour itself should always be addressed, preferably with the entire team present.

For clarity sake, I am not promoting for a deletion of codes. I am merely downplaying their value as opposed to these three things you can influence as a leader. As I am still learning, I am sure I have missed some lessons. Can you complete my list?

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