Building an ethical workplace is more than just hiring people who think of themselves as “ethical people.” It’s deeper than a value statement as part of the organization’s mission. It starts with a foundation of believing people are good and have positive intent. This foundation is then coupled with a common language to address situations around ethics.
Fostering a culture that embraces an understanding of behavioral ethics and how biases impact decision making is part of successful corporate social responsibility. In order to achieve this culture, the entire organization needs to learn and use a shared language around ethics. Yet, talking about ethics can be difficult to do. This blog post looks at the benefits of cultivating this shared language, and why it’s crucial to build a culture that takes ethics into consideration.

A Solid Foundation

Being “fluent” in a common language around ethics starts with a solid foundation; the belief that people are unequivocally good and have good intentions. This belief underlies decision making, and organizations can cement this idea by incorporating talk around ethics into everyday conversation. It can be difficult to talk about ethical situations, both due to our own blinders and our hesitancy to offend peers, but by creating a space for the language of ethics it’s possible to make the topic less taboo - and less personal.

When teams are equipped with the tools they need to talk about ethics, they’re empowered to approach decision making with ethics in mind. Ethics are taken into consideration as a rule, and it’s more clear when situations arise that are out of alignment. This makes it easier to see ethical blind spots and biases; an essential part of eliminating them. When ethical issues do arise, instead of shying away from them they are more likely to be successfully raised and discussed.

According to a Gallup survey, 26% of respondents chose to remain silent about breaches of ethics they witnessed because they did not believe any action would be taken.1

Fostering a culture of psychological safety will both recognize and address ethical concerns. When a space is created for open discussion, it allows individuals to raise ethical dilemmas without accusing someone of being unethical. Having a common language can ease the difficulty of confronting these situations, and is ideally interwoven into company culture.

Importance of Ethics Language Fluency

At times, people may not be aware when they are behaving unethically and may be doing it inadvertently. Or, they may feel pressured into making an unethical decision by an authority figure. Although this doesn’t make them a bad or inherently unethical person, it still needs to be addressed. Above all else, having this common language allows for a discussion about the ethical implications of a decision instead of the ethics of the decision-maker(s).

Cultivating a common language provides everyone with a playbook to navigate ethical dilemmas and situations. It makes tough conversations easier, or at minimum approachable, and removes accusations or character judgments from the equation. It also serves as a great tool for self-reflection on personal behaviors and biases.

Teach, Learn, and Use

Conversations around ethics should be commonplace and expected. The organization’s code of conduct provides guidelines that should be applicable to questions of ethics, and it should be clear to all where the organization stands on any issue.

It’s crucial for leaders to walk the walk and talk the talk by displaying company values, discussing the code of conduct, and tackling difficult conversations on their own. Leaders have a responsibility to lead by example: to act ethically, be fluent in the language of ethics, and make ethically sound decisions. This makes it easier for others to follow suit.

Organizations can implement processes or systems that support ethical decision making by doing the following:
  • Communicating openly
  • Promoting teamwork
  • Defining the organization’s values and goals
  • Training team members to recognize and address ethical issues
Teaching, learning, and using ethics will positively impact workplace culture and decision making.

Make Ethics a Priority

It’s without a doubt that teams within organizations face ethical dilemmas. Establishing a common language to identify, address, and manage situations where ethics comes into play is key to building a culture that embraces ethical behavior. By having this common lingo and clear guidelines around ethics, organizations are better equipped to deal with unethical, and sometimes uncomfortable, issues that arise - without making judgement on individuals.