Much has been written about “tone at the top,” the idea that senior leadership sets the ethical tone for the organization. It goes without saying that tone at the top is important because morality is an essential aspect of leadership. In fact, the two are irrevocably linked. But to rely solely on those at the top to drive ethics is naïve.
Emphasizing “tone at the top” alone overlooks the potential benefits of promoting organizational morality from the bottom up.
When speaking on ethics at conferences, I often pose a series of “trick” questions for the audience. (Is that unethical?) My first question is, “How many of you are in favor of morality in the workplace?” Invariably, only a few courageous souls raise their hands. The others, presumably, are concerned that promoting morality at work might encourage employees to proselytize in the breakroom or baptize at the water cooler.
Then I ask a follow-up question, “How many of you believe in organizational ethics?” BOOM! Hands shoot up throughout the room. “What,” I ask, “is the difference?” Cue the well-intentioned hairsplitting and parsing of words. Very few initially advocate morality, but virtually EVERYONE wants to promote ethics. Morality has gotten a bum rap.
Despite those who distinguish between ethics and morality, or avoid the latter word altogether for political correctness, they are one and the same.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy (“moral philosophy” to be specific) that deals with moral principles. Morality consists of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad. You could say that that ethics is the science of morals and morality is the practice of ethics. In most contexts the two terms define one another and are therefore interchangeable, so don’t let anyone confuse you. Morality is good.
Additionally, irrespective of geographical, cultural, religious, and political differences, deep down people intuitively know right from wrong and agree on objective moral norms. (Theft and murder, for example, are universally condemned.) Organizations would be wise to take advantage of this innate moral compass within employees.
Although personal values may differ, and none of us is perfect, the majority of people share an objective moral basis for identifying bad behavior.
Most employees share a common reference through which they can objectively evaluate whether actions, behaviors, and decisions are morally right or wrong. For example, most employees would perceive deceptive, coercive, and abusive leaders as unethical. But an organization led by leaders who abuse authority to gain power and influence or resort to deceiving, coercing, and obstructing for convenience or political expediency are vulnerable unless its moral majority is empowered to evaluate and report their unethical behavior.
Consider investigations into the actions of two former US government officials: the former Secretary of State and the ex-director of the Internal Revenue Service. Both allegedly used personal email accounts to conduct official government business, some of which contained sensitive information. The former Secretary is also accused of using secret, unauthorized, and unprotected private servers to store emails containing classified intelligence correspondence from multiple agencies.
The names of these former leaders and the specific rules, protocols, or laws they may or may not have violated are not what is most important here. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and as of publishing time the FBI was still investigating.
These situations demonstrate that organizations are vulnerable unless there is an ethical tone at the bottom.
Where were all of the employees, auditors, and IT security personnel while this activity was allegedly occurring? According to what has been reported to date, not a single employee who exchanged official correspondence with the .com email addresses of these leaders reported having any reservations about doing so.
Furthermore, not a single internal control, nor the IT auditors responsible for monitoring and testing them, detected that any classified correspondence had been sent to non-classified email accounts. How can this be? Either no one noticed, which is inconceivable, or none of them felt empowered to say or do anything about it.
Why would followers look the other way rather than blowing the whistle on an unethical leader? Sometimes, because they have been conditioned to do so.
Although most organizations say they want employees to report wrongdoing, some simultaneously advance the notion that right and wrong are matters of positional privilege. Rules that apply to lower level employees simply do not apply to senior leaders. Employees at the bottom learn to accept double standards, override their moral instincts, and avoid judging the behavior of leaders – despite their unethical behavior – when those leaders are held to an entirely different set of rules, or no rules at all.
Similarly, there are organizations that promote consequentialist corporate cultures in which decisions of right and wrong are determined by the outcomes those decisions produce. Lying, for example, may be forbidden except when doing so will please a customer, close a sale, or appease members of the media. In this “ends justify the means” type of organizational culture it can be difficult for employees to report a leader for lying or cheating because the organization is celebrating that leader's accomplishments.
Is it any wonder whistleblowers hold their breath? Fortunately, a majority of employees intuitively know right from wrong and share a common basis for differentiating between ethical and unethical behavior. By awakening this moral majority and empowering it to promote an ethical tone at the bottom, organizations can guard against the threat of unethical leadership.
Organizations can take 5 simple steps to awaken the moral majority and promote an ethical tone at the bottom:
1) Establish consistent ethical standards that apply to all employees and situations.
2) Require all employees to participate in recurring ethics training and simulations.
3) Form cross-functional “neighborhood watch” groups to raise awareness and discourage wrongdoing.
4) Develop a simple process that outlines what employees should do if they see anyone violating ethical standards.
5) Protect and reward whistleblowers who speak up (don’t “shoot the messengers”).