Putting ethical values into every aspect of organisational life will reap moral dividends.
Ethics training at work will not work if it focuses on what people already know. Teaching adults at work about moral values does not cut it, because the problem for most of us is not that we do not know the difference between right and wrong.
We have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong from a very young age – according to some research, from the very first few months of life. Children know they have to be honest, but they also know what will get them into trouble and what people they care about want to hear.
“People learn from and imitate others, particularly more powerful others.”
So, if we know what is right or wrong from childhood, values instruction at work may not always be the best idea. It may even make us feel patronised and treated like children. Or worse, we may be told about values not actually espoused at work.
In organisational misconduct, it is rare to hear that the wrongdoer did not know right from wrong. We do hear that people didn’t see the moral issue or couldn’t do what they thought was the right thing. Sadly, research shows people at work regress morally! What should we do?
Professional Development: Skillsnet: introduction to workplace ethics
Expect and reward
Like children, we may know what is right and wrong, but we also know what
is expected and what will get us into trouble. If we want people at work to do the right thing, then we need to expect and reward ethical behaviour.
Set the standards
In most cultures, children learn more about values by observation and imitation, less from explicit instruction. The same happens in organisations: people learn from and imitate others, particularly more powerful others. This learning, once acquired, becomes routine and automatic, affecting what people see and do.
Focus on moral hurdles
Getting superiors and subordinates to understand the hurdles that trip us up with workplace ethical behaviour – and how to remove those hurdles – will help more than just talking about values. In many instances, it’s not that people don’t know what the moral thing to do is. The problem is that they may not see the moral in what they do; they may not have the tools to deal with implicit/explicit pressure to behave unethically; or they may not understand their own limitations to correctly identify ethical issues and solutions.
Ethical conduct can and should be improved in the workplace, but this won’t be achieved by merely telling people about ethical values. And it won’t be achieved by giving people case studies and asking them what the ethical solution is.
Coming up with the right solution in an abstract case doesn’t necessarily translate into ethical conduct in real life, with its real pressure and influences.
More time and effort instilling ethics into every aspect of our organisational life is likely to bear more good apples.
This article is from the March issue of INTHEBLACK.
Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.
Read next: The importance of ethical culture at work