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Katherine Bradshaw of the Institute of Business Ethics discusses how internal communicators and those responsible for ethics and compliance within the workplace can work fruitfully together.

The goal of communicating ethical values is ultimately to create shared meaning for employees, a sense of belonging. If communication is effective, they will know what the organisation stands for, what its values mean, what that means in the workplace and how to apply those values in their day-to-day jobs.

Working with those responsible for ethics within your organisation may provide challenges for internal communicators. You may not have a formal ethics and compliance (E&C) function, but chances are you do have someone who is responsible for making sure that employees understand how the company wants them to behave. Whether these messages come from HR, the company secretary or the CEO, it is important that IC works closely with them for these messages to be effective.

A lot will depend upon the way that E&C is structured within your organisation, and the different emphasis which is placed upon ethical behaviour. IBE Research into the roles of ethics and compliance officers identified three main ‘domains’ or interpretations of the role.

  • Custodianship: Safeguarding and embedding of current organisation norms and standards, delivered through traditional E&C programme activities – more compliance and rules based.
  • Advocacy: Challenging corporate values and standards in practice; surfacing and debating difficult issues and encouraging more open dialogue around ethical issues at work – a more ethics-focused approach.
  • Innovation: Changing business processes that present an unacceptable risk of legal or ethical failure – a risk management approach.

The E&C function may include elements of all three domains, but one will dominate. What emphasis does the function have in your organisation? This will have informed how messages are communicated in the past. Is this how messages should be communicated in the future?

Communications advisers are experts in the process of how messages are communicated; the E&C function can provide the context of what and why it is being communicated. This is why it is important that the two functions work together in developing a strategy, combining IC’s expertise in delivering messages so they are understood and E&C’s knowledge of the corporate culture and what they are seeking to achieve.

As with any collaboration, it can be difficult for those who have been responsible for doing their own communications to let go. However, working with IC can give the E&C function access to new perspectives, technologies and channels which will refresh messaging so that it has greater impact.

Begin your collaboration by finding out what those responsible for ethics wish to achieve. Is your organisation going through a culture change, or rolling out a code of ethics for the first time? Develop a strategy together to give confidence that messages are meeting their targets and formulate success measurement and assurance.

An important part of a strategy to communicate ethical values will be to inform employees of the tools which are available to help them operate in line with the company’s core values and ethical principles. Tools such as the code of ethics, speak up procedure, helplines and decision-making frameworks need to be communicated so that employees know where to go if they need advice or have an ethical issue. But communicating ethical values goes far beyond signposting information. At the very least, it will be about embedding ways of working so that every component of the organisation collectively preserves the company’s integrity; at its most radical it can be about changing behaviour and finding new ways of working which are in line with ethical values.

Communicating ethical values is not as simple as informing employees about facts, figures and procedures and checking they are compliant. Ethics goes beyond compliance and springs from intrinsic values – like honesty, fairness, openness – that underpin behaviour. That’s why discussions about ethics must start with concepts that touch employees’ sense of self.

It is the way organisations communicate how they wish employees to behave which can be the most powerful tool in achieving the desired behaviour. Traditionally, messages about ethics have been communicated in legal prohibitive language. Unfortunately, many organisations still use the language of compliance, of punishment and mistrust. This characterises employees as without ethics – fraudulent and corrupt – and needing to be ‘re-educated’ into the company way or face punishment.

Whatever the emphasis of your organisation, internal communicators can help steer messages so that they are more likely to engage employees positively. IC experts can help make sure that those responsible for ethics issues get their messages across effectively, by explaining why the company’s ethical values align with the business strategy, so that ‘doing business ethically’ becomes a business priority, framed as a positive contributor to the business.

Communicating Ethical Values Internally, an IBE Good Practice Guide by Katherine Bradshaw, is available from www.ibe.org.uk

IoIC members receive a discount on this publication – use the discount code available from the members’ area of this website (remember to log in).
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