What Great Bosses Know about Ethics Traps

As a manager, how do you view ethics in the workplace? I hope you don’t see it as simply enforcing rules and regulations to keep the business out of trouble. That’s a very narrow view.

Harvard business ethics expert Lynn S. Paine would call that a “compliance” strategy, in which prevention, detection and punishment are paramount. Instead she believes in an “integrity” approach, which embeds values into daily operations and conversation.

As a manager, that’s your role. I think it’s one of the genuine rewards of management — the ability to build and preserve a positive workplace culture where integrity matters. A place where employees aren’t focused on a fear of being caught doing something wrong; they’re proud of how clearly people believe in doing things right.

To build a strong, ethical workplace culture, you need to be aware of some assumptions and practices that can get in the way.

Here are six ethics traps leaders should avoid:

Relying on a written code of ethics alone. Have a code. Put your standards, practices and values in writing. But don’t assume that people memorize it all. And don’t assume they believe it’s important unless you make it come to life in positive ways on an everyday basis.

Talk about what matters. Reinforce good decisions. Be a walking example of ethics in action. Remember, Enron had a code of ethics. It sure looked good on paper, didn’t it? But in practice? You know the story.

Assuming ethical decision-making is a simple matter of knowing right from wrong and of using common sense. There are some bosses who think writing a code of ethics isn’t really necessary. They believe in keeping things simple. After all, we already have a Golden Rule, Ten Commandments, and the Boy and Girl Scout creeds — that should cover us, right?

But ethical decision-making is a complex process that goes beyond mottos and pledges. It involves balancing competing pressures and loyalties. It can involve multiple right and wrong answers. Having guidelines and a shared, understood decision-making process creates better outcomes and stronger cultures.

Serving as the sole “ethics guru.” For all sorts of reasons, from ego to expertise to fear, there are bosses who want their employees to ask themselves, “What would the boss do?” when faced with an ethics challenge.

This approach makes the staff totally dependent on the boss, fails to build critical thinking skills, and can lead to arbitrary decisions rather than a known, shared process. Great bosses get tremendous satisfaction from knowing that their team can make great decisions without them leading the conversation.

Applying standards differentially. Some managers tread too lightly with veteran employees or superstars. They may assume those staffers don’t warrant the normal check-and-balance process or they fear pushback. Values and standards aren’t discretionary. Everyone, including (and especially) the boss, should play by the same rules.

At the same time, some bosses step back from ethics conversations when the staff is under tough competitive or economic pressures. Great bosses know this is the real test of an ethical culture — and they stand firm.

Mishandling mistakes. Even in cultures of integrity, people make mistakes. Note that I didn’t write in passive voice that “mistakes are made.” People make them. Bosses respond; some explode, some excuse, some explore.

The best ones investigate what led to the mistake: communication, unclear standards, flawed assumptions, training or systems — or, in some unfortunate cases, clear problems with character. They take responsibility for their own piece of any mess. They fix what’s broken in the organization. If what’s broken is a person’s character, they act decisively to eliminate that danger to the team’s integrity. Great bosses also know that sincere, well-expressed apologies for errors — to staff or to consumers — can inspire trust.

Failing to recognize that the pressures you place on people may lead to ethical compromises. Your emphasis on efficiency or economy may push people in the direction of ethical shortcuts. You need to know when “faster” has the potential to reduce accuracy and when “cheaper” could challenge safety.

You must manage both the opportunities and the risks, all the while communicating values. That’s one of the challenges of being a manager — you’re an agent of change and at the same time, a steward of the organization’s values.

Great bosses are more than just compliance or corrections officers. They inspire those around them to act with integrity, and together with staff, they build a strong ethical culture at work.

How do you know you’ve achieved it? I’ll answer in our podcast “What Great Bosses Know about Ethics Traps.”

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunes U. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.