Can other sectors teach us about ethics?

The Ethisphere Institute is a leading international think tank dedicated to the creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability. Each year they honor a dozen organizations—usually huge corporations, although a few government agencies and nonprofits sometimes make the list—as the “World’s Most Ethical Companies.”

It’s a curious challenge that in the nonprofit sector, we assume that because public trust in our organizations is traditionally higher than it is for public and private institutions, we shouldn’t have to worry about our image, brand promise, transparency, stakeholder confidence, and so on. This kind of self-assurance could be dangerous, especially if we’re not open to the possibility that we all can make room for improvement.

Hey, the Ethisphere awards conference participants weren’t exactly our crowd—American Express, Boeing, CIGNA, the Fluor Corporation, Coldwell Banker, Fox News, General Electric, The Hartford, Eli Lilly and Company, and the U.S. Navy, among others—but here are some nuggets worth considering from their “Best Practices Report.”

1.  Mind your credibility gap. Internal transparency should be just as important as external transparency. One winner described this as the gap between what the employees know to be true within the organization and what they’re seeing published in the organization’s newsletter, web site and annual report.

2.  Take a clear look at your level of transparency. The Panama Canal Authority was honored for its unusual commitment to honest disclosure, what Ethisphere calls “extreme accountability, by making information available to everyone at any time.” The Authority posts its financial documents online, such as contracting regulations, proposals received, and information regarding the winning and losing of contracts. Even more astounding: they publish a list of all employees, their positions, and salaries, and even provide all financial detail on employee travel. There’s no doubt a history of mistrust behind this scenario, but an intriguing model of transparency now.

3.  Act swiftly to reward ethical behavior and take a stand when your standards are compromised. The ethics officer from AFLAC, another honoree, recounted how the company took just 45 minutes to fire its celebrity spokesperson, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, in 2011 after Gottfried made highly offensive comments about the Japan tsunami on his Twitter feed. Then the company turned the finding of a new voice for it’s famous “AFLAC duck” into a well-publicized contest.

4.  Secure the role of a communications professional at the senior leadership table. Messaging and media work should never be performed in a vacuum. Government entities and nonprofits generally understand this critical link, while some corporations are still on a learning curve.

5. Define what you stand for and what actions support those standards. One honoree cited the importance of precise and specific definitions of ethical standards in an intercultural environment. Don’t assume that everyone understands what your values mean on a daily basis. This is the difference between a common platitude (“We strive to provide excellent customer service”) and a literal translation of your standard, i.e., “Every phone call or email answered within 24 hours.”

6.  Stop fearing the power and immediacy of social media and use it to your advantage. Why not employ new tech tools as an avenue for your employees to report unethical behavior? One winner described empowering employees to voice their opinions on organizational processes via the company’s social media outlets, including blogs, as an approach that fosters a more friendly and engaging work environment. This is a 180-degree shift from the “never mention your employer online” policy.

7.  Move conversations about values and ethics beyond just the boardroom and into the break room—away from something lofty and into daily life. “We realized that our employees have a sense of humor,” reported one executive, sharing how “informal and open dialogue, sprinkled with humor, effectively brought messages home for employees.”

8.  Commit to maintaining an open, ethical culture as a continuous process—it doesn’t get “done.” One winner turned the award into a launching point for a campaign promoting its culture internally. Rather than simply celebrating its recognition, they used it as a reinforcement that internal communications were working and must be stronger than ever in the future.

9.  Take nothing for granted when it comes to public trust. Ethisphere’s keynote speaker, PR luminary Richard Edelman, presented a sobering list of findings from his firm’s annual Trust Barometer. There is a growing mistrust around the world across all sectors. Nearly twice as many countries are now falling into the “skeptics” category with three out of four institutions declining in trust. Government proved to be especially distrusted, now trusted by less than half the population in 17 out of 25 countries. NGOs are still the most trusted institution, despite some drops around the globe.

10.  Keep the conversation alive and going. Why not use an in-depth exploration of one or two organizational values, or ideas on how to share ethical “best practices,” as a roundtable topic for your next meeting or retreat?


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