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Timothy R. Clark: Can you microwave ethical development?

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 7:01 a.m. MDT

Several years ago, Bertie Charles Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, said, “A rich American, intellectually brilliant but without mental or financial scruple, recently died. He was sore, sour, bitter. He freely admitted to intimates that he didn’t care how or where he acquired wealth — he was out to get it by hook or crook. If such a life isn’t a miserable failure in the eyes of both God and man, what is?”

People read about this man but soon forgot because when something doesn’t affect you personally, we call it news. That is changing. We have on our hands today an ever-growing ethics problem, whose tentacles are reaching everywhere. The unscrupulous business person is ubiquitous. Organizations are now in the bleak position of trying to implant ethics in people for whom none were ever planted in the first place.

When I teach ethics to leaders, I bring a large "for sale" sign into the room, the kind you would plant in your front yard when selling your home. I give it to one of the leaders and ask, “Are you for sale?” Then I pause and say, “If you do not have an ethical creed that says some things are not for sale at any price, you are for sale.” It’s a stunning visual and drives home the point.

In this day and age, if you’re not quite sure if you’re for sale, there’s a good chance you will go to the highest bidder. In our society, we have come to a place in which leaders are now subjected to severe ethical testing. They must run an ethical gauntlet. They are propositioned to lie, engage in conflicts of interest and a host of other forms of misconduct. At the very least, they are asked to remain purse-lipped and silent as they witness soft forms of crooked behavior around them.

God has imbued all of us with a moral sense, but many members of the millennial generation have not been taught ethics at home, which is where ethics should be taught. They didn’t go to church to learn ethics, and schools played neutral. They were raised by the mass media which taught them norms of indulgence, self-aggrandizement and a hundred forms of venality. And so many of society’s young leaders think ethics is a quaint notion. They discount it as Disney idealism because they have been taught that a serious person plays for advantage.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School said, “Values turn out to be the key ingredient in the most vibrant and successful of today’s multinationals. I refer not to the printing of wallet cards but to the serious nurturing of values in hearts and minds. Once people agree on what they respect and aspire to, they can make decisions independently and not work at cross-purposes.”

Many organizations today are filled with ethical liability they can’t see. It resides in the employees who are vulnerable to ethical breaches. The problem is that organizations have very little way of assessing the liability, and yet we know it’s there.

How do you incubate real values in people who are for sale? I’m convinced that organizations should add ethics development to the existing emphasis on ethical compliance. The best way to do this is to create an ethics program modeled after workplace safety programs. Workplace safety programs — particularly those in manufacturing organizations — have figured out how to shift a culture by reformulating prevailing attitudinal and behavioral norms. They focus on modeling, constant training and constant reinforcement.

In the field of workplace safety, organizations focus on principles such as full-body awareness and present-moment thinking. They conduct daily “safety contacts” or mini-training and reminder moments, and they do it every single day. Organizations need to start borrowing these best practices by implementing a daily “ethics contact” to teach and reinforce the skill and will of ethical behavior, along with guidance about common ethical dilemmas. They need to invite employees to share “bravely refuse” moments in which they present situations in which they must refuse an offer to commit in an ethical breach.

These measures have the ability to recondition the moral reflexes of a large system. But it takes time. There’s no microwave option.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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