March 29, 2010 | Barb Carr

An Organization’s Code Boosts Ethical Behavior

Personal and professional conduct codes may seem basic when it comes to leaders demonstrating and encouraging ethical behavior. I’ve worked for leaders who mirrored the types of ethical behavior they wanted their staff to emulate, both on and off duty.

I’ve also worked for and witnessed leaders and specific staff who thought ethics were for everyone else; a one-time thing to be used only when it was professionally convenient or made them appear and sound ethical. The ‘leaders’ or specific staff espoused and “preached” ethics but when they thought no one was looking or no one would find out, their true colors shone loud and clear. They always appeared out front to verbally reinforce specific ethical standards written in manuals, orders and memos. But when it came time to demonstrate those behaviors, often at organization and personal sponsored events, these individuals came up short. Through their words and actions, they often violated the specific ethical rules they ‘championed’ and were expected to follow themselves. The rules were meant for others, not themselves. This was especially true after they received a promotion.

“Wise leaders generally have wise counselors.”

Diogenes, philosopher

But recent studies indicate Ethical Codes are more than basic—they have a huge impact.

Here are a few tips to help make them work:

Write the Code(s). Lisa Shu, a recent graduate student at Harvard University and two professors found that simply putting a code of conduct in place cut cheating in half. But Shu and co-authors Francesca Gino, an assistant professor at North Carolina, and Max Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School, discovered that there’s an even stronger impact when people sign the code. They become owners of it. Taking that step virtually eliminated unethical conduct.

“People underestimate the impact of these codes,” Shu said. “But it’s a nudge in the right direction.”

Customize it. Many organizations use a kind of boilerplate code of ethics. Don’t use only a consultant. Get the organization’s key staff and employees involved in the development and implementation of the code. Consultants don’t have to live with and by the code they help develop. The leadership and employees do! This is one important way to get leadership and employees to “Commit and enroll.”

For example, Johnson and Johnson’s Code of Ethics, their “Credo” lists shareholders last.

John and Johnson believe if it does all else right, shareholders will gain, too. The Credo matches the belief s of the firm’s people.

Ethical behavior should become more defined, with more accountability, not less, the higher you rise in the organization. This is especially true in politics at the national, state and local levels.

“I believe every right implies a responsibility, every opportunity an obligation, every possession a duty.”

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., oil executive

Set the tone. Shu’s research found that more people cheated when no one kept tabs on them and held them accountable. On the surface, that may see quite obvious. However, people often define ethics and integrity as doing the right thing even if no one is watching. “Environmental cues matter a lot,” Shu said. “It’s shocking how much of our morality does depend on our environment.”

Reinforce it. The people who cheated remembered only one part of the code of conduct, Shu’s study found. The honest ones remembered five parts of the code. That could be a memory issue or perhaps the cheaters way to try and justify their actions. Find the means and methods to reinforce the code of ethics at every opportunity at staff meetings, training sessions and through the organizations electronic mail and newsletters. Case studies are an effective tool to reinforce the code.

“The greatest conflicts are not between two people, but between one person and himself.”

Garth Brooks, singer

Live with and by the code. Walk the talk. Think it, live it; breathe it. Make it one of your personal core values. It must be seamless, (really) transparent and sequential. Personal, then professional. Inside out, NOT outside in.

“Abraham Lincoln did not go to Gettysburg having commissioned a poll to find out what would sell in Gettysburg. There were no people with percentages for him, cautioning him about this group or that, what they found in exit polls a year earlier.”

Robert Coles, author

It’s far worse and more destructive to put a code of conduct in place and ignore it than to not have one at all. Absent a code, employees may believe the ethical dilemma wasn’t completely thought through. Ignoring the code shows it just didn’t matter to those at the top of the organization. That type of attitude breeds even more cynicism among the employees.

Train your staff. Train up and down and across the organization. Not just once or to “fill the square” of some governmental or hierarchal requirement. Make ethics training and the Code of Conduct a part of the organizations quarterly, semi-annul and annual training processes. That demonstrates that the organization’s serious about ethics and the code. But…training aside, there’s nothing better or more effective than mirroring the behavior you want! Train all levels of staff and the senior levels, too. Lead by example.

Follow-up. After the code is in place and the initial training is completed, the real work has just started. Organizations must put in place various methods like whistle-blower hotlines (don’t shoot the messenger), to help uncover any errors or wrongdoing. Organizations must have specific enforcement plans in place and be willing and capable of taking whatever preventive measures that may be required. Accountability is key!

See it through. When leaders find any number of emotionally convenient and comfortable reasons (excuses) to stop reminding their staff (and family) of the importance of acting in an ethical manner with integrity and honor, the staff (and family) may soon forget of its importance. The results are the staff (and family member) may resort to cheating and/or cutting corners on their behavior. They may revert to the behavior of least resistance and most familiar and comfortable.

“Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”

George Washington Carver, botanist

Always presume (never assume) the best. When you develop and write the code of conduct, write it with the expectation, mind-set and core belief that people are basically honest and want to do the right thing and take the proper action. Don’t write a list of don’ts, Shu says.

A personal observation. Recently, my wife and I attended our 13 year-old nephews 7th grade flag football game. One of the rules is the quarterback must throw the football within four seconds. If he doesn’t, it’s a loss of a play. Each team has 10 plays per possession. There’s one referee per game. A father on our nephew’s school team watched as the referee continued to give the opponent’s team’s quarterback up to 10 seconds to throw the ball. An obviously violation of the spirit and intent of the rule and gave the opponents an unfair advantage.

After the first quarter, the father approached the referee to question him about the apparent rules violation. What the referee did was a surprise, even to me. He didn’t call time-out and take a few seconds to listen to the parent’s concern. What the referee did was throw the yellow flag at the feet of the parent—a penalty against our nephew’s team—and began to scream at the parent. My wife and I were seated about 30 yards away and we could hear the referee’s loud and inappropriate words and watch his obnoxious behavior. Other parents heard it and sadly, so did the young 13 year-old players.

There was a part of me that was surprised and a part of me that wasn’t. As a former high school and college athlete and parent, I’ve seen this type of behavior from parents, referees and individual players most of my life. From this recent example, there’s no doubt in my mind the referee felt he was being challenged. His ego, authority and position were, in his mind, at risk. Given his physical stature, attitude and overall disposition, my concept of the “frustrated jock syndrome” was alive and well. After the game, I suggested to my wife that the parent should report the referee’s unethical behavior and actions to school officials. ‘Adults’ like this shouldn’t be refereeing or coaching at any level! I know I wouldn’t have stood there and taken his verbal abuse.

Parents and officials need to let the kids play. It’s NOT brain surgery and life and death. (Though in some cases you’d think it was.) Ethics, integrity, honor and character start at home. Parents need to stop living vicariously through their child’s athletic endeavors. ‘We won, the kids lost.’ Teach them to play hard, give no quarter, expect none in return, play fair and leave it all on the field or court. And model the behavior!

And yes, our nephew’s team lost. But he really won! Our nephew’s a winner!

“The important thing is to learn a lesson every time you lose.”

John McEnroe, tennis champion


This article was reprinted with permission from Captain George Burk, USAF (Ret), Speaker, trainer, author & writer. Captain Burk is a plane crash & burn survivor. He will be speaking about how to achieve quality in life and work at the 2010 TapRooT® Summit. Visit his website at:

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