Part 2: Leadership and Building a Clear Ethical Program


WWSJD? What Would Steve Jobs Do? Could Apple employees ask themselves this and know what to do in a tricky situation?

Can your employees ask themselves what YOU would do in an unusual situation and know what they should do?

In last week’s blog I introduced the Malcolm Baldrige and Florida Sterling business management models and the fact that there are several critical systems within them that governments struggle with in terms of planning, implementing, and getting results.

This week’s focus is on the topic of ethics and senior leaders’ role with them.

The problem with ethics is that they exist in a grey area. Nearly every sitcom episode ever made was based around an ethical issue; Beaver’s friend cheated in class, should he blab? Theo finds a bunch of money, does he fess to Clair and Heathcliff? Years and years of TV viewing and knowing the right thing to do still isn’t always that simple. No matter how much ethics is managed there will still be a grey area; this grey area relates to risk to your organization. Your ethics plan should be focused on reducing as much grey area as possible in order to reduce risk.

Major General John Harris, Commander in the Ohio National Guard, gave a presentation at the 2015 Sterling Conference on Promoting Ethical Behavior in a Rapidly Changing Environment. He described that ethics falls in the grey area because personal beliefs, experiences, and perceptions get involved.

It is the leaders’ role to remove as much grey area as possible to support employees in making decisions that will align with the beliefs and code of ethics of the organization in all circumstances.  Leaving grey area leaves your employees at risk which ultimately leaves risk to your bottom line.

Ethics crosses boundaries with values and laws. As laws and social norms change ethics change.

  • Laws represent social rules
  • Values represent a person’s person beliefs and indicate how they will behave
  • Ethics represents the behavior that you are committed to

Seven processes that describe the leaders role from General Major John Harris and one from me are:

  • Set the Business Case
    • Define what ethics means in YOUR organization
    • Identify what/who the bottom line is; is this properly aligned with your Mission?
    • What are the dynamics in your organization
    • Ask, What does right look like?
  • Train the workforce and communicate with the workforce: Ambiguous ethics equals risks. Protect your employees and your bottom line by ensuring that your code of ethics, your ethics policy, and your agency values are up to date, accurate, clear, and UNDERSTOOD.
  • Resource the program
  • Take disciplinary action
    • Make consequences clear: both punishment and societal and bottom line impacts
    • Act swiftly and equally
    • Protect victims and whistleblowers
  • Model ethical behavior
  • Hold leaders accountable
  • Reward ethical behavior
  • Build a culture of trust. Employees should be able to report ethics violations without retribution, both the person and a witness. You could have the most eloquent and integrity driven code of ethics the world has ever seen, if trust is missing you will fail to remove the risks related to ethical violations.

Review and improve: Major General John Harris’ point in his presentation was that it’s not one and done. Social norms and laws are changing all the time. Do your policies reflect same sex marriage rights? When you update your policies, do attitudes change overnight with them?

Does your code of ethics include social media? Do you know who is tweeting about your organization? Do your employees know that they can be accountable after work hours for things that they post on their “personal” pages?

Level of Power: Does your policy take into consideration the level of the employees position? Consider this: what would be the impact of a part time clerk taking a nap behind the desk? Now consider the CEO is caught doing this? The ramifications are quite different. Now what if they are stealing , lying, cheating?

Leaders should be operating by code of ethics, while perhaps the more in the trenches staff should work more on a clearly defined policy backed by a solid set of shared values.

Engage: Your attorneys can’t write this without the leaders engaging their Vision for the organization. As General Major John Harris says, “if you can’t articulate why your ethics policy or code of conduct is important- dig deeper”. Responsibility for relaying the importance of upholding ethics of the organization are both senior leaders and management’s responsibility. It should be taken beyond an administrative requirement; if an employee cannot or is not willing to commit to upholding the ethics they should not be on your payroll.

In summary, if every organization had its own Mr. Belvedere there would never be an ethical violation again. Create your own know-what’s-right policy and be sure what is right for your organization is clearly defined, based on core values that are communicated and understood; the chances of employees upholding that policy and reducing the grey area will be greatly increased.

Recommended Reading from General Major John Harris: “The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything” by Steven M.R. Covey.

Stay tuned. Still on deck:

  • Innovation and risk taking: Where do we start?
  • Leadership: You set the culture
  • Regulatory constraints: Stop making excuses
  • Agility: A facilitated change management plan says what?
  • Benchmarking: There IS someplace like home

Laura Thorne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Francesca El-Attrash

Really important topic Laura! Ethics always seems to be the last topic people want to deal with because it can be so difficult and sometimes tedious. I’m glad you wrote about this, especially emphasizing the grey areas. Any tips for helping organizations not to become complacent with their policies?

Laura Thorne

Thank you for your question, Francesca. 1, I think that leaders need a reality check in a lot of cases. Lots of little ethical violations can go unnoticed and many will say “we don’t have any ethical violations”. I you don’t have any, you likely need to work on that trust thing. 2, once leadership is ready to take ethics seriously and commit to a solid program they need to have a mechanism to review it and keep it up to date in place. It could be part of the Environmental Scan or its own process.
Hope that helps.


Great tips! It’s really difficult to know where and how to draw that ethical line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and these tips are great to define what ‘ethical’ is or at least get the conversation started.

Olivia Jefferson

Great post Laura! You perfectly captured what makes ethics such a difficult area. Because ethics are a combination of laws and values, they can change over time. As law and society changes, ethical standards have to as well. I think that’s what makes clearly defining and maintaining ethical standards so incredibly difficult.