The work of ethical leadership

Next week I will be in Florida with 40 ECOs from my organization.

Although I’m the host, the agenda was largely crafted by the attendees. They selected most of the topics and they will be doing most of the presenting.

When you let 40 people create an agenda without any coordination, you might expect a certain lack of cohesion. Interestingly, it didn’t happen. In fact, most topics align with just a few themes: harassment in the workplace, speaking up, and investigations.

For a culture enthusiast like me, this was music to my ears. The team sees what’s going on in the news with celebrities and politicians, and they want to ensure that our processes will continue to keep these behaviors at bay.

I look forward to learning from them. Even more so, I look forward to supporting the changes that will make our culture even better.

Theirs is the work of ethical leadership.

Reducing risks with brand and culture

“For brands like Zappos and Red Bull, culture is the ultimate talent attraction tool – not only as a point of differentiation against competition, but also as a means of filtering out those unsuited to their organisations.” (emphasis added)

– Perkbox

As ethics & compliance professionals, our goal is to mitigate business risks.

Many of us follow the model developed in 2007 by the Ethics Resource Center (now the Ethics & Compliance Initiative). Essentially, the model shows that a well-implemented compliance program combined with an ethical culture leads to reduced risks.

Most of us think of culture as a force that shapes how people in the organization do their work. An equally important function of culture is to keep certain people out of the organization.

When a strong culture is well known outside the organization (think Starbuck, Trader Joe’s, Zappos, etc.), it can prevent undesirables from even applying for a job. When it is not well known, it can reject any misfits in short order.

From a risk-mitigation perspective, this is important. An ethical culture supported by a robust compliance program is like a force shield. To protect us from external dangers, our culture must be so strong that even those outside our organization are familiar with it.

In other words, our ethical culture must become part of our brand.


On investigations

One of the best ways to show your employees that we care about them is to take action when they report improper behavior.

When thing go badly in the workplace, a robust investigative process and timely feedback can make a huge difference for the reporter.

No matter how long an employee works for us, they will vividly remember the time they reported wrongdoing and the ensuing investigation. It will stand as one of the most emotional moments of their career. Their courage to speak up should be rewarded with a thorough investigation and protection from retaliation.

Leadership is a choice

Two people facing the same circumstances at work can react quite differently.

One can be angry and bitter at the organization, the other cheerful.

The first thinks he’s angry at an event or person for what happened to him. What actually makes him angry is the accompanying feeling of powerlessness. Or, even more so, the knowing that he’s failing to take some action actually within his power, be it only choosing his attitude.

The second is aware of her power to reason and to take action. She knows that her situation is better than that shared by millions. She assumes her responsibility to change things at work or to find a new organization to work for. She is cheerful because she chooses to be.

Those who exercise their powers of reason and action are the ones who inspire others. They are the true leaders we want to follow.

Two key steps to realign your culture

The company Workday is ranked #7 on Forbes’ Best Companies to Work For this year.

When the company was founded in 2005, its leaders decided to create an employee-centric organization, banking on the intuitive notion that happy employees do what’s best for the customers.

As the company grew, its leadership noticed that not all managers and employees were living by the stated values. Culture was heading in the wrong direction. In response, they did two things:

  • Created new processes to realign the culture (remember: culture is an outcome of your processes);
  • Separated top performers who didn’t play nicely with the other boys and girls.

Most leaders still do not understand the process-driven nature of culture. And most leaders don’t have the guts to terminate top-performing jerks, especially when business is bad.

But if you can do these two things, you can turn your culture around.