Companies Struggle to Define Integrity and Ethics

We don't struggle with the job market, we define it.

Companies Struggle to Define Integrity and Ethics

Hundreds of regional execs reveal their strategic standards for decision making.

How uncanny! On the eve of the release of our Report on Integrity and Ethics, the longtime chairman and CEO of Freddie Mac, the president and COO, and the CFO were asked to step aside. Why? Lack of “cooperation and candor” and “management misjudgements”. Last week, Sammy Sosa was caught with cork in his bat, a major crime in major league baseball. Just this week, the Police Department of Philadelphia was ordered to re-open over 2,000 rape cases that were deep-sixed over the past several years.

bright picture of man with crossed fingers

We may find these indiscretions hold only a dim light to the questionable motives and ethics of leadership at Enron, MCI, and Tyco. Nonetheless it seems the pendulum has swung from all is fair in love and war (and business) to leading and managing with the highest standards of ethics and values – at least that is what leaders of organizations were saying.

But we were curious. What are these highest standards? Does everyone agree on what integrity and ethics really are? And how far from walking this virtuous path is our working population? So we asked the 5,000 readers of our Total View e-newsletter how they have responded to twenty-five integrity and ethics situations.

Here is what we found. Look to your right and look to your left. Assuming you believe yourself to be honest, ethical and live your life by the highest moral standards, you may find, based on the Integrity and Ethics survey, that one of the other people in your party may be less credible than you would like and expect.

Our survey ran for two weeks and concluded at noon on June 10, 2003. We had 203 respondents complete the on-line survey – anonymously and confidentially. There was no reason for respondents to lie, or fake good, other than to fool themselves that they were better than they really are. Of course, the flip side of this is also true. There was no reason for anyone to do what we call ‘faking bad”, or being harder on themselves than necessary. Based on this assumption that most people consider themselves as honest, we believe the results to be a true reflection of how people are responding to difficult choices in the workplace.

Who can you trust? One of the most striking conclusions was that it appears to be difficult for many people to keep a secret. When asked if he or she “shared with someone information that was told must be confidential”, 35 percent said yes! So much for keeping a secret.

Interesting. I’ve asked many boards of directors and managers this same question: when told that “whatever is said stays in this room, have you ever shared the information with your spouse or partner”, between one-third and one-half admit they do. But this raises one of those paradoxical dilemmas. If they keep the confidence but they have been asked by their loved one” did anything interesting happen today, honey”, have they broken a trust bonded between spouses if they don’t say anything? Talk about being between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Generally when information is delivered in confidence, it is unlikely that the speaker means “please don’t blab this to just anyone but we know you need to tell someone and that’s okay.” To me as well as many others information shared in confidence means that the only other people who hear about the information should come directly from the source if it comes from anyone. Apparently one in three doesn’t agree with these conditions. Setting standards for integrity and ethics apparently isn’t that easy or at least not that easy to adhere to.

For those 65 percent who keep the information in confidence, we would like to think that they did so out of respect for the source, whether it be their friend, colleague or boss. But when asked if they ever ” held back information that was important because they didn’t think it was their position to say something”, 63 percent said yes.

If this trend is accurate, individuals who keep information confidential may not be doing so because of integrity but because they are reluctant to be the bearer of bad news or the whistleblower. This paradoxically raises another question of ethics and values. If you withhold information for whatever reason that might be valuable to someone or the organization, is this considered a breach of integrity or ethics?

A Dog-eat-Dog world. One-third of the respondents admitted to withholding important information “because saying something might risk my position or injure my reputation with colleagues.” This was somewhat confirmed when 29 percent admitted to playing hard even if it meant someone else might look bad.”

When it came down to protecting oneself verses winning one for the Gipper, apparently winning at all costs triumphs for at least 34 percent of the people. They admitted to “holding back information because saying something might risk their position or injure their reputation”. As I said earlier, if it’s not you, then one of two of your closest colleagues may not be there to catch you when you need them the most.

Life is full of difficult choices. Standing up for what is right or defending a controversial viewpoint takes guts. Standing up for your principles apparently isn’t that important for 28 percent of the people. They chose “just doing their job” to doing what’s right when asked if they have ever “justified a difficult decision because they were just doing their job although they knew the decision was wrong”.

That is all fine and good I guess unless it’s a job they don’t want to do. Then it’s okay to pass the buck. Twenty percent of the respondents admitted to “having used someone else to do a difficult task to avoid personal embarrassment or confrontation.”

Nothing personal, it’s just business. Have you ever embellished the truth to be heard or sell an idea? We all know people who do. Eventually you learn to take what they say with a grain of salt. Whatever they try to sell you becomes too good to be true or the advice screams Chicken Little. Even when their advice is good and accurate, you can’t endorse it. The result is that you risk bypassing good opportunities or ignore warning signs of imminent danger because you’ve lost trust from all the previous false alarms.

Fifty-three percent admitted to making statements that pushed their viewpoint to an extreme just to make a point. Wow, that is one out of two people. Twenty-nine percent embellished the facts to make a sale or get their point across. Hmmm. When does selling cross the line into “nothing personal, it’s just business?”

A high standard of ethics and values is only as good as the people who follow it. Every organization today seems to be defining or re-defining their code of business ethics. But trying to define integrity and ethics and values within any organization is as much a virtuous activity as a formidable challenge. Nothing is as easy as it seems and integrity as our survey has demonstrated is not a black and white issue.

Ira S. Wolfe is founder of Success Performance Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in employee selection and managing performance. To learn more about selecting and managing employees who do the job well and fit into your organization call 717.291-4640 or click here.

One Comment

  1. Concerned Employee
    Jul 23, 2014

    One of the company’s that you mentioned, Tyco, is not holding up to its Ethical Code of Conduct with respect to retaliation on employees who speak up, as well as failing to maintain Integrity and Ethics in its hiring process (i.e. not verifying every new hire’s credentials and/or misrepresenting those credentials to stakeholders).

    Shareholders need to learn about the above considering they rely on the claims made by George Oliver in the Ethical Code of Conduct (as mandated by SOX) when choosing to invest in Tyco International.

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