We’ve all heard it preached — in our corporations and beyond — how we should do the right things in the right way and for the right reasons. Even so, it’s often easier, faster and seems more profitable to take actions that fall in a somewhat gray area — what we’ll call a slippery slope.
Here’s what that could look like in an organizational setting: approving products before quality checks, production rate trumping safe practices, questionable sales made for goods not available, creative accounting to justify mergers, suppressing reporting errors, and the many other small ways we individually fail to keep promises or look away when our gut tells us something is amiss.
If one were to break it down by gender, there is no evidence that women are more likely to behave more ethically than men. But gender research does report more verbal sensitivity to the rights and dignity of others among women when compared to men. For instance, women overwhelmingly report that they would not work for a company that will do anything to win. Still, refusal to select such a workplace doesn’t mean that women in the workplace will behave more ethically than men. What people say they will do has very little predictive validity compared to what they actually do.
Nevertheless, gender is an untapped resource in setting the conditions to behave ethically. Consider the oft-cited stereotype that women are known for their inclination as caregivers and men for their conditioning to reach the end goal. Both are important. Caring is of little value if the corporation fails, and end goals are meaningless if people and the public good are harmed. But if each were to bring their strengths to the table when addressing ethical concerns and help keep each other accountable to do the right thing, we might not read about ethical lapses in the news as often.
So, who is in charge of the organizational ethical compass? The ultimate responsibility rests on the shoulders of those who lead, and diversity executives can help leaders to create an ethical workplace culture by starting with the following steps:
• Encourage leaders to surround themselves with men and women who are committed to supporting ethical actions.
• Make sure there’s a set of values that leaders and employees can look to when facing ethical dilemmas. Craft a sophisticated plan of action to ensure ethics is part of everything from sales meetings to production report to community involvement. Translate values into the varied observable actions that represent those values.
• Provide a forum in which errors and near-misses are reported without negative consequences, but are part of the healthy ethical framework the company is striving to create.
• Examine the consequences for saying and doing the wrong thing — subtle and unintended, overt and intended. Leaders must examine themselves and seek evaluative support from others about what they do that’s trending toward or away from what others deem ethical.
• Arrange practices, processes and incentives of the workplace to shape and maintain ethical decisions from the boardroom to the shop floor.
• Leaders should be open to critique of business strategies and tactics — in some instances it’s acknowledging that the worker in the boiler room may know better than leaders about what is really going on that is ethical or not.
• Encourage use of a scorecard of ethical elements to evaluate how well leaders and employees are doing, jot down what “slippery slopes” they faced and how they might better respond to it going forward.
• Share learning in an active way. Review short-term effects against uncertain but possible longer-term effects. Calibrate and change course where needed.
Darnell Lattal is a consultant and president and CEO of Aubrey Daniels International. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.