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Having a Code of Ethics is one thing, having a consistently ethical organisation is another. Katherine Bradshaw of the Institute of Business Ethics discusses how to go about embedding an ethical culture in your organisation.

If you asked anyone in your organisation if they are ethical, you can generally assume they’ll say yes. Just as everyone thinks they have a good sense of humour, we believe we would do the right thing.

And yet, as we read about more and more business scandals, you could be forgiven for thinking that companies rarely think about ethical issues and their impact on their reputation, their brand, their bottom line. But the truth of the matter is that you can look on any one of those scandal-ridden companies’ websites and read their Code of Ethics. You can probably also download their corporate responsibility report, which might detail the amount of training in ethics, the number of calls to their speak-up line, including the number of staff fired for unethical conduct.

So what goes wrong?

The real challenge

The challenge to companies is to embed ethical principles (e.g. integrity, trust, fairness, respect, honesty) in order to encourage an ethical mindset throughout the organisation. Creating a culture that influences employees’ actions, decision making and behaviour can be a lengthy process, requiring sensitivity, patience and resources. Unethical behaviour can be so ingrained into a company’s culture as to be considered ‘the way business is done around here’, and may not be considered unethical at all.

Employees need to understand what is expected of them. But as communication professionals, you will know that it is not as simple as sending round an email with a hyperlink to the code of ethics on the company intranet. Communicating ethical values has an added complication, in that it is not simply a case of communicating facts, figures and procedures. Ethics is about behaviour: whether that is changing behaviour, or supporting people to do the right thing when they are under pressure. Ethics by its very nature is about the ‘grey’ areas.

Talking about ethics can raise different emotions in people: they are either offended (“How dare you? I have been working here for years; no one has ever suggested I was anything but ethical!”) or busy (“I don’t have time to sit around talking about feelings! I’ve got real work to do.”) or bored (“Whatever.”)

How do you communicate something as nebulous as ‘integrity’? How can you communicate the ethical standards of the organisation effectively, so that they’re not only understood, but affect decision-making?

Ethics should be a two-way process

It is worth remembering that communication is a two-way process, and that communicating ethics should be a dialogue. What are employees’ ethical concerns? How do they feel they are supported? Use staff surveys to gauge the ethical temperature, and find out what bothers people. Gather stories from the helpline or speak up line of ethical dilemmas. Celebrate ethical behaviour with stories which exemplify the kind of behaviour you want to achieve.

Company culture comes from the stories we tell each other. Whether those stories create an ethical narrative is another matter.

Stories from the top (do as I say, not as I do), those told by team leaders (whatever it takes) or colleagues (everybody’s doing it) can lead to a very different culture than that espoused by the company’s stated values. Like all good stories, you should show rather than tell. That is why any communications campaign must be part of a wider drive to embed ethical values, with buy-in from the top.

Encourage senior leadership to ‘set the tone’ by referring to the values and expectations of the company when they address employees, whether through speeches/town halls, emails or a message at the beginning of training sessions. Ultimately, their actions speak louder than words.

Key communications tools

The Code of Ethics should be the flagship communications tool, but too often it doesn’t actually do what it intends to do. Internal communications practitioners may not have been involved in its development, but their expertise is crucial. It needs to explicitly reference the core values, be in clear language and translated if necessary. Work with HR and L&D professionals in your organisation to ensure that ethics training is lively and connecting with employees.

Technology is one of the tools at your disposal to communicate ethical values, scenarios, success stories. A lot will depend upon the company itself as to the tools you use: social media; blogs; videos; apps; gimmicks. Messages about ethics may get lost in the static of communications employees will receive. So how can communications both stand out and be effective in changing/supporting behaviour? Don’t forget the water cooler, or coffee line where people talk to each other.

The most powerful tools are the stories and myths of a company. Use positive ethical stories to communicate values in action. Be open and honest about ethical problems; for example, strategic decisions which held an ethical dilemma. Support employees who speak up and celebrate employees who go the ethical mile.

Katherine Bradshaw is communications manager at the Institute of Business Ethics and author of several IBE good practice guides, most recently Developing and Using Business Ethics Scenarios. The IBE is developing a good practice guide on communicating ethical values internally and welcomes any feedback from IoIC members. www.ibe.org.uk @IBEUK

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