You will have to make clear to everyone in your organization that moral priorities are as important as financial priorities. Everyone in the organization will understand that finances are critical to survival, and so no one is likely to make the case that ethics should trump every other consideration. But an ethical culture starts with holding moral values at least as high as financial concerns.
This will mean that you will need to establish a history of making ethical choices. Think about the people you admire; what most probably come to mind are the important decisions that that person has made over time. Ethical organizations have staff who are committed to, and who admire, their organization because of the visible commitment, over time, that is captured in the history of moral choices that the leaders of the organization make. Building that history will take time, but it is the most powerful way to establish an ethical organizational culture.
Of course, you will also need to set out the ground rules for how you want people to operate and how you want them to make the decisions assigned to them. You will need to have ethics rules and standards of ethical behavior. You will need a policy document that makes clear the values of the organization and that can grow as you discover more about the ethical issues that your organization faces.
Many organizations today are offering, or requiring, ethics training. The research results are inconclusive at this time as to whether this works and, if so, to what end. But it does highlight the leadership’s commitment to making moral choices, and makes it less likely that employees who violate standards can say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that that was unacceptable.” But don’t assume that your organization is ethical because all of your employees have passed an ethics test.
For decades, health care organizations have made good use of “ethical consults.” They will usually have ethics “officers” who are available to answer questions and to help decision makers think through complex situations. Often, they will have an ethics council to review certain kinds of decisions before they are made, or other kinds of decisions after they are made. Having some kind of in-house consultation or, in the case of a smaller organization, on-going access to such help, will emphasize leadership’s commitment, and will, if done properly, create coherence within the organization’s ethical culture.
As kids, we all were told by our friends that we shouldn’t “tell on each other.” But an ethical organization, by necessity, has to be a mature organization, which faces its tough choices, rather than avoids them. Consequently, you will probably want to institute some kind of reporting system so that your staff will have someplace to go in order to report, with varying degrees of confidentiality, mistakes or missteps that they observe. Understanding the various problems that such a process identifies and the actions you take in response will contribute to the growth in the ethical culture that we have emphasized above.
At the highest level of commitment to moral decision making is a “Values Identification Audit” (VIDA), a coordinated and thorough planning process wherein the organization identifies its values and seeks to anticipate the difficult decisions that it will confront. This could be done when you review your “aspirational statements,” like your Mission and your Vision. (If you don’t have those statements, or if you haven’t revisited them recently, then that would be the logical first place from which to start this process.)
A VIDA starts with a Statement of Values. Here is ours at the UIC School of Public Health:
SPH Statement of Values
We are a community of scholars, students and staff dedicated to creating a healthy society. In achieving this goal, we are committed to:
- COMMUNITY, the basic unit of analysis for public health, enabling communities to address their own problems, share skills, lower barriers to action, and act as a catalyst for progress.
- KNOWLEDGE, the pursuit, development and dissemination of which will improve the health of the public.
- PROFESSIONALISM, acting with integrity and collegiality in learning, teaching, research and public service.
- STEWARDSHIP, of natural, human and financial resources.
- IDEALISM, whether secularly or spiritually motivated.
- CARING, promoting compassion for and action on behalf of others.
- JUSTICE, whereby everyone is given access to the resources necessary to live a humane life and necessary to fulfill his or her full potential.
- DIVERSITY, celebrating unique contributions to the fabric of our community.
- RESPECT, for the members of this community and for those whom our efforts are intended to serve.
- HUMILITY, as we set our goals, as we work together to achieve them, and as we address the inevitable conflicts produced by those joint efforts.
The American Medical Association has a much smaller list:
- Integrity and Ethical Behavior
The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce has a more elaborate statement:
What are the ideals that guide how we accomplish our mission?
- Respect worth of individuals
- Team Results
- Advocate for continuous improvement
- Attack goals with vigorous pursuit
- Member driven
- Well-defined goals
High Ethical Standards
- Do things right / Do the right things
- Positive leadership
Knowledge of Chamber Business
- Relevant subject matter experts
- Technology proficient
But you really need to go beyond, what a colleague of mine calls, “a statement of easy virtues.” The ethical success of your organization will be determined by the decisions that you and your staff make over time. At this early stage, while you are doing the VIDA, you should try to anticipate the tough conflicts that you are likely to face. No one knows for sure what they will do in any novel situation until that situation is real. But a lot can be gained in thinking through some of this ahead of time, and then committing to a continuous re-examination of one’s Statement of Values and Anticipated Conflicts.