I only did what everyone else was doing.” Or “my boss told me to do it.”
These are the sort of dodgy answers people give when they want to avoid taking any blame for their actions. To take an extreme case, the world refused to accept this excuse for killing Jews in the last war. Nor will it work for cheating while working in a bank. A former Deutsche Bank salesman in the company’s Japanese brokers unit is on trial for bribing local public servants.
He claims such conduct was “institutional” and “based on instructions and consent of…bosses”.
His response to being called to account highlights how firms wanting people who follow the rules, face the basic question
How do we engage our staff so they become truly responsible for the right behaviour?”
The present scale of the challenge is huge. Research into whether those employed feel “ethically engaged”, or as others call it, “self-governing”, suggests few take doing what’s right seriously.
…only 3% of those employed across 18 countries observe high levels of self-governing” Ethics and Compliance Leadership Survey, LRN, 2011-2012
At the other end of the scale, other research implies there is always likely to be a small proportion of the payroll with almost no moral or ethical standards. A study by Deloitte suggests we should assume about
…four percent of the adult population is toxic that is, one in twenty five people, on average, may be operating without a conscience. Managing the Bad Apples, Deloitte, 2009
The chart we’ve devised offers a current picture of what many ethical leaders and their compliance experts’ face:
Only when being engaged ethically becomes a normal part of business culture can we expect most people to behave with integrity—to feel they have a real part in ethical performance.
One way of winning ethical engagement is to build the firm’s culture. This kind of change is now high on many firm’s agendas. Global giants from Barclays to Goldman Sachs have launched high profile programs stressing the importance of client care and ethical behaviour.
Changing culture though, remains a long and hard journey. So hard in fact, that using “culture to excuse lack of progress in gaining ethically engaged employees becomes open to challenge.
Still more to do
Apart from culture shifts, how else do we foster employee responsibility for their actions? How for example, do we stop people thinking they’re off the hook because “others are doing it” or because their boss seems to turn a blind eye to wrong doing?
One essential step is to ensure people hear their leaders talking with passion about what they expect in terms of behaviour. Too often what they get is lack of clarity. For example, sales people receive a stirring story of what they must do to win favour, while the compliance message points in a different direction.
Richard Bistrong, who pleaded guilty of conspiring to bribe foreign officials in 2010, says that companies send mixed signals when they preach compliance but send staff to corrupt countries with the promise of pay packages based largely on sales numbers.
The message of compliance is now being distorted by how you are getting compensated”
Dow Jones Global Compliance Symposium
Another simple step is to ensure everyone employed uses three basic questions about their actions at work:
- Is it legal? –will I violate any criminal laws or company policies by doing this?
- Is it balanced?—is it fair to all parties both in the long and the short term?
- Is it right?—how does this decision make me feel about myself, am I proud of making this choice, would I like others to know what I did? 
None of the questions ask: “does the boss say it’s OK to do this?” Or “is everyone else doing it?”
Another useful action leaders can take is to demand a basic audit on honesty. This can come up with problems that stop people from taking ethical responsibility.
For example, the CEBC Integrity Quickcheck  gives a snap shot of the ethical landscape by asking whether 1) Ethical issues can be discussed without bad consequences?
2) Senior leaders support and practice high standards of ethical conduct
3) The firm really wants to serve the interests of stakeholders such as customers and employees
4) Employee behaviour matches the firm’s mission, vision and values
5) Employee career progress depends on behaviour that supports company values?
Having ethically engaged employees is a realistic aspiration. Since most employees want to work for ethically responsible companies and such companies tend to be more profitable than less ethical ones, this aim must surely make practical and financial sense.
 Chart devised and adapted using multiple sources including:
a) Leadership Counts, Deloitte 2007
b) Managing the Bad Apples, Deloitte, 2009
c) Ethics and Compliance Survey, LRN 2011-2012
d) R.Steare et al, Who’s doing the right thing? 2008
 See for example Blanchard and Peale, The Power of Ethical Management, Vermilion Mar 2000
 D.Jondle et al, Assessing the Ethical Culture, White Paper, Centre of Ethical Business, 2011
Here’s how I and my company Maynard Leigh Associates can help you make sense of ethical leadership
- Help you clarify what business ethics mean for your particular organisation
- Coach you to understand what it means in practical ways to be an ethical leader
- Run internal programmes to identify and develop core values affecting company culture
- Assist leaders to establish and communicate leadership tone–inspiring people to act responsibly
- Develop managers’ and leaders’ confidence to talk about and promote business ethics
- Advise on generating employee ethical engagement–where people go beyond the basic rules of compliance
- Develop new, creative ways to encourage people to speak up about ethical issues
- Strengthen HR Team and their ethical role
- Run forum theatre sessions to communicate about ethics in a highly interactive way
- Write an article or feature for you on ethical leadership for your publication
- Be a keynote speaker about ethical leadership at your next company or public event
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