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How to Get Ethical Fruit from Your Cultural Roots

The larger an organization grows, the harder it is for leaders to keep tabs on its details. There comes a point when they simply can’t know all the activities and decisions of people, the various operational processes, the minutia of the financials, and all the other information that lives deep down in the data.

The dilemma is that while leaders can’t and shouldn’t micromanage their organizations, they ultimately are responsible for things that go wrong – especially the big things. As a result, some leaders live in fear that what they don’t know will come back to haunt them and their company, and that’s particularly true when it comes to ethics.

I heard a story not long ago about a medium-sized regional company where one of the partners suffered a near-fatal injury that left him paralyzed for life. The company established a foundation to help provide care for the partner and his family, and a high-level and trusted administrative assistant was put in charge of it. A few months later, they discovered she had been embezzling money from the foundation.

Now imagine the risk of something like that happening within a global organization with thousands of employees. As an organization scales, so do the opportunities for lapses in integrity in places where the leadership team has very little if any real insight.

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So, what can ethical leaders do to help ensure their companies operate ethically at every level regardless of their size? Here are a few suggestions:

Take advantage of technology

Data-driven insights allow leaders to take a deeper look into the complexities of their organizations and take a proactive approach to stop or prevent lapses in integrity.

Anheuser-Bush InBev is a company that’s leading the way in technology-based solutions to ethics issues. The world’s largest brewer has implemented a “machine-learning technology that can identify risky business partners and potentially illegal payments,” according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating problems after they arise, they hope to use the analytics platform to identify patterns and take actions that prevent corruption.

Establish checks-and-balances

Technology is great, but people can’t remove themselves from the process. Especially in high-risk areas, it’s important that multiple people are providing oversight and that everyone knows appropriate checks and balances are in place. For some, just knowing these processes exist is a deterrent. 

Empower the truth

It’s been said that where there’s no root, there’s no fruit. If a safe environment is rooted in your culture, then trust will grow and truth will bloom. When people trust each other and feel safe, they are empowered to speak out, even when it’s in opposition to others on their teams.

At the first sign of an ethical breach, those who notice should feel obligated and empowered to say something. That’s an attitude that’s got to be baked into a company’s culture through regular communication around the topic of ethics, but also by encouraging and embracing opposing viewpoints in any discussion. When employees feel free to openly disagree during everyday meetings, they’re more likely to sound an alarm on an ethical issue.

Walk the Walk

Prioritizing an ethical environment starts from the top. If leaders prioritize it in their own actions, people are more likely to follow in the same way. That means leaders must act ethically, of course, but it’s more than that. People must see that their leaders are investing in systems that prevent or identify ethical lapses, that they allow others to hold them personally accountable, and that they encourage open discussions that include vulnerability and dissenting opinions.

By continuously investing in and emphasizing the importance of ethics, you can build a culture that consistently adheres to your organization’s values and prevents or quickly identifies lapses, even if they are taking places in the nooks and crannies that are difficult to see in a big company. Then the things you can’t see are less likely to hurt you.

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