A global cultural shift towards addressing economic and social injustice makes it critical for organizations to examine their values and behaviours.
It may be difficult to lead ethically but, in this climate of change, it is the only way to ensure organizational sustainability. When unethical behaviour is exposed, it may result in disruption to both organizations and individual careers however, hiding it causes poor morale and reduced productivity, not to mention the risk of human rights complaints and lawsuits.
The cultivation of a values-centred organizational culture increases the chances of improving ethical behaviour.
The Fish Rots from the Head
Ethical conduct is critical for leaders. For 19 years, Strategy&, the global strategy consulting team at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) has analyzed CEO success at the world’s 2,500 largest public companies. In their 2018 annual analysis of CEO turnover, Strategy& found that though the rate of CEO firings was comparable with statistical trends in past years, the primary reason had changed. In the past, most CEOs were fired for poor financial performance or conflict with company boards. For the first time in the history of Strategy&’s study, the majority of CEOs were terminated for ethical transgressions such as fraud, bribery, insider trading, environmental disasters, inflated resumes and sexual indiscretions.
Ethical leadership is guiding your people, leading by example and doing the right thing by adhering to values such as integrity, respect, fairness and honesty in your words, decision making and actions. While many organizations espouse ethical values, the behaviours must match them. If employees can “smell” insincerity, incoherence or hypocrisy internally, there is a chance people outside the organization will also notice. Just because a behaviour traditionally has been accepted or ignored does not make it ethical and these failures of the past can carry significant risk in the present.
The safest way to sustain your career and business is to do the right thing by revisiting, re-evaluating and resetting your ethical values where needed.
An ethical leader is a professional who commits to scrutinizing their own values and behaviours. You must have the courage to accept responsibility and be accountable for how your actions affect yourself and others. You must hold yourself to the highest level of integrity. You must also commit to ongoing self-reflection by asking yourself the following types of questions:
- Can our goals be accomplished by ethical means?
- What values are essential to how we work?
- Are others able to determine our values based on our decisions and actions?
- What decisions and actions are we unwilling to take no matter what we may gain?
- Would I want everyone in the organization to follow my own example of how to be an ethical leader?
At times, you may feel pressure to do something that is unethical. Part of being an ethical leader is establishing boundaries and having the strength of character to draw the line and to do the right thing, even when it is difficult or unpopular.
Researchers have characterized unethical behaviour as a slippery slope: a series of minor unethical acts leads over time to more serious ethical violations. By creating a strong ethical culture, the likelihood of unethical behaviours by individuals throughout the organization is reduced because unethical behaviour is seen as unacceptable.
Michel Shah is a facilitator in SEEC’s Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring Skills program (starting April 26, 2021). For more information and to register, visit the program web page.