Home' HR Monthly : March 2015 Contents Recognising the difference between fancy words and embedded attitudes and practices
is what counts when it comes to finding, or creating, an ethical worl<place culture.
BY PETER WILSON AM, AHRI CHAIRMAN
SOME PRACTITIONERS HAVE FOUND THE PRINCIPLES OF
robust ethics somewhat elusive. The basics of ethical conduct and
morality are quite simple, but application can be difficult because
real-life cases often involve complex dilemmas. Sometimes there's
no single correct answer. As Professor Bob Wood, of the Centre of
Ethical Leadership at Melbourne University, once said to me: "It takes
about two hours to teach the history of ethics and the main schools of
thought, but a lifetime to practice it."
Why are ethics in the workplace important? Put simply, good
ethics is good business. In 2011, the Ethics Resource Centre in the
United States reported that half of the nation's employees witnessed
unethical or illegal conduct in their workplace, and the cumulative
costs were a staggering 10 per cent of GDP. A commission of inquiry
into the global financial crisis concluded that it was caused by a
systemic breakdown in business ethics.
In 2012, the Ethisphere Institute pointed out that the
performance of the "World's Most Ethical Companies" outpaces
the S&P 500 every year.
At individual company level, an unethical environment is one
people don't trust, and therefore can't possibly work in at their best.
Poor workplace cultures are often based on old command -and -control
leadership styles. Take the case of two cut-price airlines, US Southwest
and Japan's Skymark. Southwest has exemplary customer and
employee engagement results, and its financial performance has been
very good. I've flown with this airline several times, and you smile so
much at the excellent service you forget you're travelling coach class.
In contrast, Skymark announced to its customers in 2012 that they
should "not expect flight attendants to help stow their bags, or even
speak politely". If travellers complained, they would "be removed".
I'm surprised these guys are still flying.
What do you look for to find an ethical workplace culture? There
should be clear and simple statements of organisational purpose,
principles and values - and a commitment to them - sitting behind the
actions taken and the evident leadership and cooperative behaviours.
And it should be pervasive. Before you step onto a Southwest or
Skymark flight, you know what to expect because of their reputations.
They expect you to commit to their style of 'delivery'.
But the fact is, many organisations have high-level ethics and
values statements bolted to their walls, posted on their website,
6 HAUl hrmonline.com.au
etc, but they're no more than broad expectations or conditions of
acceptance. The better practitioners have considered where their
major ethical risks lie from talking with all their people. There will
be documentation of principles or processes to prioritise appeals or
reviews of ethical problems, and staff will know them well and rely
on them. They will be a source of confidence for staff that they'll be
treated ethically and equitably when difficult problems arise. There'll
be an expectation that the organisation's decisions will reflect the
net benefit to the majority and not just a sectional interest or group.
Outcomes will be known to be unbiased and not favour one group.
After surveying a number of successful ethical practitioners,
philosophies and organisations, social psychologist and cultural
researcher Shalom Schwartz wrote that ethical practice must highlight
two critical principles (and eight other supporting ones). The first
is benevolence, which is to create an environment of self-enhancing
values - creativity, freedom, curiosity, self-respect and
choosing one's own goals in a fair and caring
atmosphere. The second is universalism, which
is looking to define the greatest good for the
greatest number, achieved in a peaceful and
Illustrative practices of ethical organisations
include: measuring whether their leaders are
perceived as fair, respectful and trustworthy,
and that people are actually treated accordingly;
peer evaluation of managers' performance;
asking leaders to explain how their
decisions benefit the majority; and
sharing celebration of significant
successes with teams as a whole
and not just the top-enders.
Next month I'll dive deeper into
what you should find in an ethical
workplace - where the hardball
issues are and HR's role in
achieving such a culture. <<>>
To read past Perspective
columns by Peter Wilson, visit
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