When keeping abreast of the news, it’s easy to gloss over corporate scandals or executives getting a slap on the wrist for acting inappropriately, unethically or even criminally — simply because it happens so often. Further, it might seem completely alien to the way your own organization does things.
But leaders should fight the human tendency to think, “That could never happen to me.” No one is infallible, and any organization can fall into ethical lapses. That’s why leaders should consider taking a more proactive stance to guard against such behavior.
“[Any] executive in a company might say, ‘I am ethical; I always want to be ethical; I never want to do any shortcuts,’” said Darnell Lattal, CEO and president of Aubrey Daniels International. “The fact is we get shaped by conditions that are subtle — it’s called the slippery slope. We don’t even know it’s happening. By omission, we can fail to say something that can lead to unethical actions being unreported.”
A recent, high-profile example is the unfortunate turn of events at Penn State. In the wake of the scandal, it came to light that there were ethical compromises made by some of the university’s leadership. Some may wish they could have done things differently, but reflecting in hindsight isn’t always the best course of action.
“In the end, we’re judged not by what we intended to do, but by the impact of our behavior,” Lattal said. “So that’s from a behavioral perspective what’s most critical and what businesses need to do differently.”
Upon discovering an unethical act, some leaders will automatically point their finger at the performer. But instead of merely firing the person and thinking that will end the problem, leaders should look at the bigger picture and reflect on how they may have contributed to the problem.
This, Lattal said, is what organizations sometimes fail to do. “We do not step back and say, ‘What in this organization set up the conditions for that unethical behavior to occur?’” she said. “You have a greater duty now to look at how you’ve established the possibility of unethical behavior occurring.”
Every so often, it’s important for leaders to take a step back and examine the organization’s decision-making process to ensure there isn’t room for ethical compromises.
“For instance, with sales teams, they want to promise something to a customer, but they actually know that there’s no capacity to deliver that, but they want the order; they want to lock it down,” Lattal said.
In such a situation, patting these folks on the back for a job well done can easily reinforce the notion that being dishonest is acceptable.
“When they begin in small ways to erode that — even in common, everyday decisions — if there is too much promise making without delivery, that begins to get people in the mode of saying yes to things and could set up a conflict — not just a business one, an ethical one,” she said.
Since leaders need to make countless decisions or choices on a daily basis, examining the organization’s decision-making process can help mitigate the risk of ethical compromise.
Lattal recommended leaders ask themselves questions such as: “What are the short-term consequences of saying yes? What are the longer-term consequences of saying yes? What does that do to our ethical fabric? Do you feel right about this? Do you feel it was a good thing to do? Is it good for our common culture?”
Leaders must push themselves to think beyond the short-term impact of decisions they make and consider what far-reaching consequences they may have. The good news is leaders actually have an opportunity here to set — or reset — the moral compass of their employees.
“We’re not born with an ethical sense of right and wrong — it’s a culturally shaped notion,” Lattal said. “We’re shaped by the conditions around us — what we learned early, but also what happens to us in life.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.