Different Rules for Different Employees? Expect Different Behaviors

George Washington

George Washington

In the land (perhaps) of no surprises, it turns out the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has one set of ethics guidelines for rank and file and a different set for the 24 executive directors who oversee the organization. As in the rules for the rank and file don’t apply to the senior execs.

If the IMF moniker doesn’t ring bells, last week IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for alleged rape of a hotel maid. Strauss-Kahn subsequently resigned his post with the IMF. While the allegations are perhaps immaterial to the ethics of any individual or the organization, the publicity brought attention to the set of double standards that existed at the IMF.

Ethics – exemplified by things such as the legend of George Washington – “Father I can not tell a lie: I cut the tree” – is at the center of the issue. How do you get, engage, and romance with head and heart employees to behave in the ways that are consistent with your firm’s cultural values and ethics? And add to the mix research that shows that we often fail to notice others’ unethical behavior if it’s in our interest not to notice.

Character,” as one person put it, “is what you do when no one is watching.” And in today’s world, no one is frequently even looking.

Having done a stint as a Senior VP for a Fortune 15 company I can assure you that a program that relies only on policies and procedures doesn’t work, and doesn’t cut it. And while Google’s simple “Do no evil” mantra may have worked when the company was 20 or 200 employees, at 2,000 or its current head count of 20,000+  it doesn’t come close to providing consistent “lighthouse” illuminating culturally appropriate behavior and values.

Work done by the Center for Association Leadership identified 7 key questions organizations should be able to answer if the intent is to have a consistent set of morals and ethics in the workplace:

  1. Why might good people in this organization do unethical things?
  2. What are our organization’s values?
  3. Have we adequately articulated these values internally and externally?
  4. Does our organization have written ethics policies, procedures, or structures?
  5. To whom is our organization accountable?
  6. What do we mean by “success”?
  7. Does the leadership of our organization support the idea of an ethical workplace?

Linda Klebe Treviño and Michael Brown identified five myths in a 2004 paper – Managing to be Ethical: Debunking five business ethics myths – for the Academy of Management Executive based on their research. The five?

  1. It’s easy to be ethical
  2. Unethical behavior is the result of “bad apples”
  3. Ethics can be managed through formal ethics codes and programs
  4. Ethical leadership is mostly about leader integrity
  5. People are less ethical than they used to be

Treviño suggests that creating consistency of behavior – behavior that supports the ethics of an organization – is based on both formal AND informal systems (see PPT reference here) and the daily tension and interaction between the two. Consistent behavior is not a “one and done”  approach – rather it’s both formal prescribed norms, behaviors and systems and all the little day to day things that signal support and alignment rather than the “do as I say, not as I do” that breeds cynicism and double standards.

Formal – driven by Exec Leadership:

  • Rules/Policies
  • Reward System
  • Selection System
  • Orientation/Training
  • Decision Processes

Informal – driven by “daily leader” behaviors and heroes:

  • Informal Norms
  • Fair Treatment
  • Rituals
  • Myths/Stories
  • Language

It probably goes without saying that having two sets of standards – one set for senior execs and separate set for the rank and file – may be a formula for disaster unless the standards are higher, perceived as “tougher” for the senior set. Even then those double standards beg the question of why – as in why would you want to deploy added complexity.

Charles Kerns notes in Creating and Sustaining and Ethical Workplace Culture that Values drive behavior and therefore need to be consciously stated, but they also need to be affirmed by actions.” And  it’s a statement of conscious intent and appropriate behaviors that are part of an ongoing conversation; the work in essence is never “finished” but like other business elements – customer service and satisfaction comes to mind – it’s an ongoing process.

As for the IMF, it looks like it has it’s work cut out for it to bring the behaviors and ethics of the organization in line with its responsibilities and aspirations.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


 

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