A Reminder About Ethics

On December 2, 2017, Marianne Jennings posted the following on her blog, The Ethical Barometer: “The Congressional Office of Compliance has released the following data on its settlement of sexual harassment claims against members of Congress. Visit the site yourself: https://www.compliance.gov. Since 1997 (through 2017), there have been 264 settlements for a total of $17 million disbursed to pay claims. The worst year? 2007, with 25 complaints settled for over $4 million in settlements, followed by 2002 with 10 complaints settlement (sic) for almost $4 million. 2017 is almost $1 million as of November 16.”

The wave of sexual harassment allegations, lawsuits, and settlement payments has brought much needed attention to this issue.

HR professionals should be reinforcing their organizations’ positions on ethical behavior needs. We can define ethics—a fundamental responsibility of management—as the principles of conduct or the guiding philosophy governing an individual or a group. In other words, an organization’s position on ethics is foundational to the work environment it creates for its employees.

Compliance with laws is the ante for an ethical environment. Few would rally around an ethical statement like, “Ok, let’s not break any laws today.” Laws are good things to have but they are limited in their effectiveness. For example, the first time a whistleblower provision was added to a law was the False Claims Act of 1863. There have been some indiscretions since that time. Enron led to Sarbanes-Oxley, and the banking crisis gave us Dodd-Frank. Various laws were supposed to prevent sexual harassment. Laws are good, but not good enough.

Managers and HR professionals are stewards of an organization, stewards of both the capital and human capital of the enterprise. Because we are stewards, it might be time to revisit your code of ethics/conduct. Make sure your statements cover what the law requires as well as what you expect of each employee. If you do not have a code of ethics/conduct, you might consider creating one. According to the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, “A well-written code of conduct clarifies an organization’s mission, values, and principles, linking them with standards of professional conduct. The code articulates the values the organization wishes to foster in leaders and employees and, in doing so, defines desired behavior. As a result, written codes of conduct or ethics can become benchmarks against which individual and organizational performance can be measured.”

Communicating your behavior expectations via your code of conduct, value statement, or handbook statements should be an evergreen process. Keeping your expectations fresh reinforces their validity, and from a legal perspective, helps refute deniability. An annual gathering/training, or at minimum an acknowledgment, would be an appropriate communication tactic.

Beyond creating codes and training lies the heart of the employee; understanding the codes is one thing, internalizing them is another. It often takes a great deal of courage to follow the clear path. This is why creating an ethical environment is so critical.