Thoughts on corporate culture, morality and ethics

I’ve blogged a lot in the past, but there’s something special about writing your company’s first blog as a startup.  It starts you down a path of both establishing a public corporate persona as well as an introspective journey on leadership.  When we founded ETHIX360, we decided that one of the things we wanted to be was simply to be part of “that company” we always wanted to part of.  I know that sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to be part of a company that builds products and sets the standard on those products as being products that we would want to use ourselves, and products that unleash unique value to our clients.  A company that has a culture we would want our friends and families to be part of, and that has a lasting positive impact on all with whom we interact.   A company with a moral compass demonstrated by ethical conduct in the way we treat others.

As our name implies, we are in the ethics business.  I believe that alone means that we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard regarding transparency and conduct.  Ethics, along with morality and culture are the underpinnings of the heart of any organization.  Culture needs to be driven from the bottom up just as morality needs to be driven from the top down, and ethics become the standards that measure culture and morality.  Like a three legged stool, an organization lacking in a positive culture, morality and ethics will eventually topple. 

Ethical behavior can and should be measured by organizations.  In fact in some industries or countries, it is required that you do so.  I think that should go a step further and become a litmus test when deciding where you work and with whom you do business.   To touch on just a view of these considerations let’s consider:

  1. “Green” businesses.  In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR said in 1937," we have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals.  We know now that it is bad economics."   Organizations of all kinds have begun making a gradual and powerful move toward sustainability as they recognize increasing convergences between economic and environmental interests. One increasingly-popular accelerator used by high-profile companies like Walmart is to engage employees in helping to achieve sustainability goals.  Several years ago, Brighter Planet embarked on a nationwide employee engagement survey to uncover insights into the extent and nature of employee sustainability programs. After crunching, sifting, charting, and interpreting 30,000-plus data points collected from 1,055 survey-takers, it was disappointing to discover that most employers have only just begun interacting with employees around sustainability, and that their efforts leave much room for improvement.  Respondents represented a diverse set of demographics, organizations, and job roles. They perceived themselves as more environmentally-inclined than most Americans, and, across the board, are enthusiastic sustainability cheerleaders for philosophical reasons, but overwhelmingly viewed their organizations’ interest in sustainability as saving money, one-upping competitors, or retaining employees.  Although 86 percent said their employer promotes employee sustainability in some arena, only 14 percent rated their engagement tactics as effective.  This should raise legitimate questions from customers, suppliers, employees and candidates alike ... is the company’s sustainability program blue trash cans for paper, bottle and cans, or a serious measured effort to reduce their carbon footprint?  Is their environmental impact improvement theoretical or established?  How receptive is the company to input from third parties regarding their environmental impact?
  2. Code of Conduct.  Most companies of size now have established a code of employee conduct, and hopefully it is viewed more than just boilerplate.  But the words and spirit of these codes too often is not supported by technology giving constituents the opportunity to report violations in a way that encourages open and complete communication, transparency in investigations, and protection from retaliation.  For example, the demographics of the workforce is changing as more and more millennials enter.  This impact alone has an effect on culture and climate.  So it begs the question, does the organization have a hotline/incident management system to protect itself, or to genuinely improve the climate, culture and transparency in the organization?  Too many times it is the former – meeting a regulatory need.  And when it is the latter, is technology in place to encourage the interaction of the workforce?  There are number of signals and signs that can help, for example, does the system in place support not only reporting but ongoing communication with anonymous reporters?  Can a reporter use any technology to interact with the process including texting, the web, a call center, and even email?  We all know that when you consider all constituents from baby boomers to millennials, all those demographics have preferred ways to comfortably communicate and systems to support employee communication, and to encourage communication should provide all of the technology – and language – options necessary to make that reporter feel comfortable and confident in the process.   Beyond the system visible to the reporting constituency, does the case management system limit the number of users that can interact with the system by charging fees for simple access by case managers, investigators and case reviewers?  Companies that are serious about allowing systems that manage reporting and case management be a positive experience and a comprehensive solutions need to ask these questions of their provider.  After all, a code of conduct with robust incident reporting and case management is just talking the talk and not walking the walk.
  3. Stacking up!  Finally, benchmarking became a buzzword in GRC a few years ago, and largely (and sadly) that is where for far too many firms it still sits.  Without robust data analytic components, companies really have no idea how they stack up against their peer.  Generalized demographic benchmarking pales in comparison to being able to see yourself against true peers who match your size, industry and geographic footprint.  This should matter to you if you are a supplier – what is their ratio of supplier allegations of fraud or bribery?  To prospective employees – how do they measure up against their peer group when it comes to issues of sexual harassment or workplace violence per thousand employees over the past few years? 

A company that has a moral compass and strong culture and climate will embrace ethical reporting systems and look critically at trends and benchmarking in an effort to make their organization a better place to work, a better source for their customers and a better partner to their supplier.  They will live their code of ethics, and not just use it for poster content in the breakroom.  Because after all when it comes to the heart of the company, ethics matters.


J Rollins is the co-founder and CEO of ETHIX360.  At ETHIX360, our goal is simple, to provide an affordable, flexible and comprehensive answer to employee communication and case management on issues related to corporate ethics, code of conduct, fraud, bribery and workplace violence.  To learn more about ETHIX360, please visit www.ethix360.com, or follow us on twitter @ethix360.