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I recently heard someone say that ethics are the fruit of an organization, stemming from the roots of integrity. The more I think about the statement, the more apt I feel the analogy is. Ethics are defined as “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.” Ethics are about what we do. But, integrity is about who we are.
Just as the health of a plant is determined by the unseen quality of its root system, the health of an organization is determined by the depth of integrity supporting it.
When integrity is lacking, we are likely to see symptoms of this weakness in the form of ethical violations. Often, our knee jerk reaction to these violations is to create new rules and regulations. While the creation of rules and regulations might be necessary, they are unlikely to provide a long-term solution to ethical weakness if the underlying issue is a lack of integrity.
So, what can we do to ensure the health of our organizational “roots”?
Take care of yourself first. Organizations are, of course, built by people. So, organizational integrity begins with personal integrity. And personal integrity is largely determined by personal care.
Have you noticed how easily everything in our life begins to slip when we are not taking adequate care of ourselves? When we are exhausted, fostering unhealthy habits, or distracted by personal issues that we’ve not taken time to address, maintaining workplace integrity becomes much more difficult. We cut corners, make promises we can’t keep, and let commitments slide. As leaders, it’s not only important that we pay close attention to our own self-care, but also important to create a culture in which self-care is both possible and expected.
Hire for integrity over skill. Skill and experience are, of course, important factors to consider when hiring new people. But skills can be taught and experience can be built, while integrity is largely a personal decision.
If you hire someone who does not have a personal interest in maintaining their own integrity, there’s little that can be done to change it. As such, it’s especially important to ensure that our leadership team is committed to maintaining integrity. Leaders who consistently act with integrity and lead by example reinforce organizational values and serve as role models for employees.
Put promise keeping on a pedestal. Promises reflect our ability to make decisions about the level of personal responsibility we are willing to assume. As such, a failure to keep those promises is a good indication that we are either unable to accurately assess the level of responsibility we are able to assume, or unwilling to take our responsibilities seriously. When you think about it, both of those reasons are related to personal integrity. By creating a culture in which promise keeping is of the highest importance, it forces everyone to address cracks in their personal integrity.
Examine assumptions about what people “should know”. Incorporate policies in the employee handbook and other foundational communications that establish clear expectations for ethical conduct. It’s not only important to ensure that policies affirming organizational compliance with applicable laws are crystal clear. It’s also vital that we communicate core values and how those values are translated into expectations of conduct.
Finally, it’s important that ethics and integrity are a regular part of workplace discussions. Create a culture where it’s normal and expected to seek input regarding whether certain actions under consideration are the right things to do. Regularly remind team members to pause, reflect, and ask questions to obtain information if they are uncertain about the appropriateness of decisions they are making. After all, the roots of integrity are only maintained through conscious attention, awareness, and courage.