Why Telling Employees To Do The Right Things Is (Usually) Useless

There is an omnipresent debate in discussions of ethics, compliance, and accountability as to whether or not it is reasonable, appropriate or in any way helpful to define any of those terms as “doing the right thing”. The usual – and, I’ll say, reasonable-sounding – argument against using this definition is that it doesn’t come close to representing the complexity of ethics, the rigors of compliance, or the imperative and persistence needed for genuine accountability. Consequently it really does no good to simply tell employees to “do the right thing” if, in fact, ethics, compliance, and accountability are your goals.

My perspective is different – I think the above arguments, once examined even slightly under their surface, miss a critical point. The reality is that ethics, compliance and accountability all are about doing the right thing. The problem is that, as human beings and organizations alike, we create almost limitless cognitive and organizational contortions to convince ourselves that, however inaccurate or outright delusional, we are in fact doing the right thing.

So, my suggestion? By all means talk to employees about doing the right thing! Just don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re actually achieving anything without the addition of considerable additional information, tools, and resources. What is needed in addition?

Here’s a starter set of what every employee and executive need to have/know:

-> Tools to recognize when they or others around them are actually not doing the right thing and how best to respond in such a situation. (This must involve everything from recognizing and responding to rationalizations for inappropriate behavior, to ‘red flags’ for frequently overlooked or ignored ethics and compliance issues, to the do’s and don’ts of confronting others regarding their behavior, etc.)

-> With absolute clarity they must know the values they are to use in making a decision, especially in the absence of an existing policy, guideline, or managerial/executive consensus. (And, of course, sometimes in spite of such a consensus…)

-> How and to whom to report observations or perceptions of wrong-doing and potential wrong-doing. (Coupled, of course, with an iron-clad stand against retaliation for doing so.)

-> What they can do, as individuals and departments alike, to steadily reinforce the actions that drive a culture of ethics, compliance, and accountability.

Each of the above is more complex than it probably sounds but each is able to be done. You just need to make it a priority to do them.

Is more required than these four checklist items? Absolutely. But if you start with even these four, you’ll be well on your way.

Once done, by all means tell your employees to do the right thing. It will no longer be an empty mandate but an easily-remembered phrase backed up with a set of powerful tools and resources that your entire organization can use to drive a culture of ethics, compliance, and accountability.

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