By Linda Fisher Thornton
How many times have we tried to teach people about ethics by explaining every detail of what it doesn’t look like? We describe laws and regulations and ethics guidelines in great detail, then ask attendees if there are any questions. After learning in great detail how to stay out of trouble, the thought on their minds may just be “Okay, now I know what NOT to do.”
We can’t teach ethics by giving people negative examples.
Just as we don’t learn how to drive a car by only hearing about accidents, we don’t learn ethical behavior by hearing about the times someone didn’t use it. It should be obvious to us, but the lure of focusing on complying on laws and regulations is strong. Those laws and regulations, though, are only designed to prevent the “what not to do” examples we hear about in the news. So “teaching” them is only teaching people how to avoid punishment.
The trap in teaching people how to avoid punishment is that it doesn’t build an ethical culture. An organization can have everyone comply with laws and regulations, and still be unethical. Why? Because ethics is about leading with positive values, not just preventing ethical failures. If we focus people’s attention primarily on the shadow side of ethics (unethical choices) we are missing the point entirely.
Ethics is about leading with positive values, not just preventing ethical failures.
Values Build Ethical Cultures
Positive values like respect, care, transparency, sustainability and service help build ethical cultures. Teaching people what they look like, and how to work together using them helps build trust and improve ethics.
“In an ideal workplace, structures and relationships will work together around core values that transcend self-interest.”
Shaping an Ethical Workplace Culture, SHRM Foundation
We need to keep the focus on what we want people to do, not just what we don’t want them to do. We need to clear up ethical grey areas with positive values.
Take a moment to think about how often you talk about compliance and how often you talk about values. Be sure you talk about positive values at least as often as you talk about compliance. Values represent a higher level of ethics than laws do, so ask for the level of ethics you want.
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