Ethics – Building Trust In Your Organization

Thursday, April 1 2010

Professional ethics are rules of conduct that state clearly which actions people are expected to undertake in the normal execution of their jobs and which actions are unacceptable. They are more specific and stronger than values.

The Ten Commandments are an example of an ancient ethics statement.

Many professionals abide by a code of ethics codes in their practice. These codes exist where professionals have a level of knowledge and expertise which others lack. As a result of this disparity, it is difficult for others, outside the profession, to call them to account fully for their practices. Errors by professionals can create traumatic consequences. The public has no choice but to hold them in a high degree of trust. Hence, professionals bear a great burden of ethical responsibility.

You can recognize Canadian university engineering graduates, for example, by the iron ring they wear on their little finger. The ring proclaims that they have declared their obligation to live by a strong code of ethics written by Rudyard Kipling in 1922.

How much do people in your organization fit this description? It is probably more than you think. 

Everyone in your organization holds proprietary knowledge about the best way to produce your product. They know sources of information to help them solve problems, to improve what they do, and the best procedures to get results. They know the consequences of making a mistake. As their leader, you likely know relatively little about most of these things within your organization.

Everyone who deals with your organization has to trust that the job will be done right and they will be protected from harm. Think about how little an outsider understands what happens in your organization and the protections that exist for them. Consider the nature of consequences if someone inside your organization makes a major mistake. It would likely benefit everyone to have a code of ethics within your organization.

It usually requires the help of an outside facilitator to bring to the table issues and statements that can help you craft a code of ethics.

Values can be a foundation for ethics statements. They express underlying beliefs and attitudes that guide actions within the organization. They define the most valuable attitudes held by those who work within it.

Professional ethics cover a number of domains:

Impartiality/objectivity Personal biases will not affect professional actions.

Openness Full disclosure is required of underlying issues, actions, decision processes and results that ensue. Confidentiality Information pertaining to the client will not be shared, unless written permission is provided.

Due diligence People have a duty to take a high degree of care in decisions and actions.

Dedication to professional responsibilities People understand what is required of them and will not abdicate their duty.

Conflict of interest When an individual has other interests that relate to the matter at hand, they are obligated to declare the conflict and/or step away from the situation.

Good faith In any engagement with others, people act in a trustworthy manner with no hidden agendas.

Moral situations rarely present clearly. When facing decisions that affect others, people seldom recognize how much their needs and desires may entice them to do something unethical. A code of ethics provides clear guidance about which actions are acceptable and which are not. It helps individuals act in a manner that treats others correctly and fairly.

A code of ethics for your organization originates at the executive level. When leaders reach a consensus on those behaviours that are required and those that are unacceptable, they gain an understanding of the responsibilities they hold for the welfare of others, both within and without the organization. Executives who live up to a strong code of ethics provide clear leadership about how people throughout the organization should act. They act as models for others.

An organizational code of ethics, exemplified by its leaders, enhances stakeholder confidence in dealing with the organization and creates deeper trust. The organization becomes a stronger leader in its industry, earns greater support from its community, and is better defended from detractors. People work together more effectively because they trust they will be treated well.

Should your organization have a code of ethics? Talk with those around you about how ethics can improve relationships, and protect employees as well as those who deal with your company. A code of ethics can make your organization stronger and more effective in its endeavours.