Ethics & Values Culture Development: What’s Your Plan?

I speak all the time with executives and managers who tell me about their wish to develop a culture of ethics and values as well as the depth of their frustration in trying to do so. Far too many tell me that it just never seems to work for them. Generalizations are always a slippery slope but here's is what I find to be true in the overwhelming number of those cases – they have no real plan!

Developing a culture of ethics is exactly like any other plan – it needs to be formal, strategic, written and supported. You wouldn't, I hope, try to improve leadership or management or customer service simply by hoping that it will get better. Again, it takes a formal and supported plan.

As a place to start in developing a plan, here are four of the essentials that I see missing most frequently where a plan actually exists:

  1. You haven't articulated your values in such a way that they are both absolutely clear to every employee and in such a way that every employee knows precisely how to bring those values to life in everything they do every day.
  2. You have somehow confused ethics and compliance. Your employees know all the rules, maybe, but they don't reliably know what to do when there isn't a rule for something. (Besides, simply following the rules not only still allows for unethical behavior but it sets the bar really low for management, leadership, and customer service. If you're looking for exemplary service, simply following the rules isn't going to get you there.)
  3. You haven't developed a formal, written, supported plan that clarifies your goals, your intended actions to fulfill those goals, and steps to monitor and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your efforts. (Again, you are presumably doing this for every other essential part of your business, why not for ethics and values?)
  4. You have succumbed to the fantasy that a one-time training session on ethics and values is all you'll need. (You may have also succumbed to the fantasy that an annual fifteen minute review of the ethics code online is going to magically allow your employees to really understand how to recognize and appropriately respond to often ignored or overlooked ethical challenges around them.) Are those kinds of training activities better than nothing? Absolutely – as long as you are realistic about their limitations and don't use them to create a false sense of security about the level of your employees' skills in the areas of ethics and values. Training and reinforcement needs to be on-going, live – at least in part – and focused on real-world, immediately applicable ideas and tools. Training also needs to be responsive to hearing what employees feel the barriers are to putting their training into use. Without giving them the tools they need to overcome those barriers, how could the ultimate outcome possibly be maximally effective?

If we were talking about any other type of training or  culture-change initiative, each of these ideas would likely seem eye-rollingly obvious and you would already have a plan of action dealing with each of them. Yet, these lapses and oversights are seen in failed ethics and values initiatives all day long.

So, what's your plan? If you can use help in developing one, I hope you'll let me know.

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