Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To be ethical, think about it

About 200 people from a mix of 29 Denver-area companies and government agencies heard a talk on business ethics this morning from Marianne Jennings, a professor at Arizona State University.

No, the managers from the 29 organizations sent to listen to the lecture weren't being put in time-out by their employers. But as Jennings listed the drivers of a series of ethics lapses that have occurred across the nation in business over the past decade and more, the audience was peculiarly quiet.

As if the subject of broken consciences was somehow familiar.

Jennings cited a survey done periodically by KPMG, the audit firm, that found 74 percent of respondents in 2008 reporting they feel pressure at work "to do whatever it takes" to get their job done. Ethics or no.

Another survey found only 9 percent of employees reporting they enjoyed an "ethical culture at work"; and 99 percent of respondents in another survey judged their own ethics to be higher or equal to their peers in the workplace.

At the outset, Jennings showed a list of 50 companies that made national headlines for ethics scandals stretching backward over the past 15 years: Adelphia, Boeing, Merrill Lynch, Enron, Qwest, Bank of America, "KPMG (twice)."

Margie Mauldin, whose Executive Forum hosted Jennings' appearance, said she put "ethics" on her nine-month agenda for the Forum's leadership series because of the financial industry crisis of the past 18 months and the Great Recession that it caused.

Mauldin has been a friend for years, and her picture appears at the left in my list of followers. She invited me to sit in on the high-dollar leadership-training session on ethics because she knows I have always been interested in the subject.

Pressure at work, Jennings indicated, is the #1 driver of "ethical and legal debacles." Pressure to perform, pressure to conform, pressure to keep quiet when speaking up will cut across the company grain. The pressure starts in high school and grows through college and graduate school until it reaches the workplace, Jennings said.

She offered several strategies to relieve pressure and encourage an ethical performance:
  • Think long term within the company, rather than only about short-term results.
  • Develop a company creed, and practice it, especially within executive ranks.
  • Solve ethical dilemmas by devising alternative solutions; talk about the alternatives among colleagues.

"We are all going to hit walls in our jobs and in our careers," Jennings told the group. "There's no perfect organization because human beings run them."

Jennings also advised asking questions. And yet, following her presentation, less than a dozen members of the audience had any questions to ask. "You're all ethical-ed up?" she asked rhetorically?

But even I stayed silent. The question hanging in the air between members of the silent audience was still: Why? Why did two decades of business misbehavior only get worse as time went on? Why were every five years of scandal followed by another five years of new scandal?

Jennings said most people realize when they are stepping outside the bounds of their own professional or personal ethics, but many will do what they do anyway. They rationalize their action with some self-styled "noble" purpose: You do it for your kids; to survive; just this once; or because the end is justifiable.

Wrong! she said. Look for an alternative that preserves your standards. "It's possible to be ethical in business and be very successful," she said. All you have to do is think about it.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the bottom line..."just think about it". If we all thought about the possible outcome of our decisions maybe we could divert some of the bad choices made from fear.