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Ethics: An Old-Fashioned Soft Skill for a Modern World

If ethical behavior had been taught to employees and reinforced as a must-have soft skill, could we have prevented the current economic meltdown? We explored this question in a recent Klaus and Associates survey and the results are in.

Although 87% of respondents believe that a lack of ethics led to the current economic disaster, there’s hope for the future: a reassuring 80% think that ethics can be taught.

Sixty-seven percent of the survey respondents pointed a finger at the profit-hungry business environment as a contributing factor to a rise in unethical behavior, with 59% agreeing that shady conduct in the workplace derives more from company culture than from individual employees. Translation: It’s imperative for organizations to promote an ethical culture on a company-wide scale.

Some companies already incorporate a strong code of ethics into their culture. For example, by adopting “Do What’s Right” at the top as a core principle, Gap, Inc., made a corporate commitment to be both ethical and socially responsible. The company established a set of ideals and behaviors that filter down throughout the organization’s 134,000 employees. Another large corporation, Johnson & Johnson, operates from a lengthy credo that challenges employees to put first the needs and well-being of those they serve. Executives at Johnson & Johnson say they consider the company values before making decisions and they can actually recite parts of the corporation’s credo.

While it’s encouraging to see examples of exemplary companies, the survey results suggest that entire sectors might be due for an ethics overhaul. Of the respondents, 54% believe that stricter industry regulations are called for to ensure higher ethical standards and more than 64% think that people in certain industries are especially inclined to behave unethically.

The following tips will keep your own professional ethics in tip-top shape as we navigate our way out of the recession:

Create a Personal Code of Conduct—and Stick to It
Know and truly understand your company’s values, not just the rules and regulations. In addition, develop your own code of conduct and follow it, regardless of where you work. Always weigh your actions against both your personal principles and the company’s, then hold yourself to the higher standard—go beyond the minimum required of you. While 100% of the survey respondents say they personally behave ethically at work and most think the majority of their colleagues do too, having and sticking to a personal code of conduct will help keep your actions above reproach.

Ethical Behavior Shouldn’t Punch Out When You Punch In
You should adhere to your code of ethics all the time, not just on your own time. When asked if people have a lower standard of ethical behavior at work than they do in their personal lives, the responses were mixed: 38% disagree, 34% agree, and 29% are on the fence. These results suggest that the ethical standards of some people decrease when they walk in the office door, a finding that greatly concerns me. When it comes to ethics, the highest standards should be followed regardless of the venue. If you are more inclined to let yourself off the hook when on the job, then become extra vigilant about keeping yourself in line. When you find yourself in a questionable situation at work, you need to take what I call your ethical temperature. Ask yourself questions like, “How would I react if something similar occurred in my personal life? If the situation took place outside of the office, where would I stand and what would I do or say?”

Recognize Red Flag Statements
If you find that you’re whispering any of the following statements to yourself, think long and hard about what you’re really doing:
  • It won’t matter just this once.
  • They’ll never miss it.
  • I didn’t break any laws.
  • It’s not such a big deal.
  • Aren’t rules made to be broken?

Ethical Behavior Starts at the Top
If you’re the boss or a supervisor, you probably know that most employees hang on your every word, but what you may not realize is that they also emulate your behavior. If employees see managers cutting corners and taking excessive risks to achieve business goals, they will too. Likewise, if you vigorously promote and exemplify ethical behavior and ideals, the staff will likely follow suit. More than 20% of our survey respondents think that higher-ups behave less ethically than lower ranking employees, whereas fewer than 5% think the reverse is true! So when you are the person in charge, be as transparent, open, and exemplary as possible.