Assessing Your Firm's Ethical Climate

Oct. 1, 2000
Use this process to assess your organization's ethical climate and its impact on health, safety and the environment.

In April, we provided you with a model for ethical decision-making. This month, we discuss a process for assessing your organization's ethical climate and a practical way to deal with it. An organization's ethical climate is an indicator of how it will act when faced with difficult decisions regarding the health and safety of its employees, the public and the environment.

The Policy Side: What is Said

We can view ethics as a pyramid -- an Ethical Pyramid -- where the organization's leaders form the foundation for conduct and decision-making (and the foundation of the Ethical Pyramid). Some initial questions to consider:

  • Are these men and women perceived as people of integrity?
  • Have they established a pattern of behavior that emphasizes the importance of individual integrity?

In other words, when faced with a serious problem, like an apparent pattern of injury and death associated with a product or operation, do these leaders respond aggressively and forthrightly to prevent further employee harm?

The middle level in the pyramid encompasses communication and enforcement of the ethical code. Questions to consider here:

  • Has executive management established and distributed a formal code of ethics to every employee?
  • Is every company recruit educated about the importance of integrity and trained in the ethical requirements of decision-making?
  • Is the code reinforced in every decision?
  • Are there rewards and consequences for appropriate or inappropriate ethical behaviors?
  • Is ethical misconduct dealt with swiftly and justly?
  • Is there a formal body within the organization for addressing ethical questions and lapses?

For example, what happens when an employee makes a decision based on the organization's code of ethics, revealing a validated pattern of life-threatening product defects to management, realizing that billions of dollars in product recalls and lost sales are at stake? Knowing the answer to this question will help you decide if you are working for an organization that aligns with your ethical makeup.

Employees make up the top level of the Ethical Pyramid. Are they encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and associated consequences? Is it acceptable or expected of employees at all levels to question authority when an action they are asked to take or they observe being taken appears unethical? Have confidential and nonretaliatory channels been established for communicating ethical questions to executive management? Is executive management required to close the loop and communicate back to the "whistleblower?"

For example, let's say an employee, doing his regular job, finds a supervisor's file containing hundreds of warrantee failure reports for a critical product safety component that have gone unanalyzed for a number of years. Should the employee go around his boss when rebuffed with an unsatisfactory answer? Is an internal investigation initiated? Are reports filed with the appropriate regulatory agencies? Are the product owners notified? Is the employee promoted? Is the boss disciplined? Knowing the answer to these questions will help you determine the best method and channel for making such a disclosure.

The Practical Side: What is Done and Dealing with It

Find an ethics mentor, a person who you believe lives by the organization's ethics and is a role model for all. Determine the values he promotes, learn those values and promote them yourself. Identify the valued characteristics of your ethical mentor and others in the organization that stand up to pressure, are successful at implementing organizational principles and who can promote change where it is needed.

Observe and learn what organizational rituals are used to encourage or discourage ethical behavior. Internalize those rituals that reinforce principled behavior. Discourage those that do not.

Learn how far you can go in questioning authority on ethical issues and determine what styles of communication are acceptable. Find out what communication channels are acceptable when communicating potentially problematic news.

Sometimes there is a perceived dissonance between what an organization says and what it does. Learn to spot and understand the conflicts and how they play out in company operations. These apparent conflicts occur because organizations are complex entities with many levels of understanding of ethical issues and how to address them. Generally, it is a matter of style and communication, not a failure in ethical performance. Negotiating the style obstacles and communication pitfalls will help to ensure that you can effectively protect your employees, the public and the environment.

Ruth McIntyre Birkner, MBA, is president and Lawrence R. Birkner, MBA, CIH, CSP, is vice president and technical director of McIntyre Birkner & Associates Inc., a health, safety and environmental performance consulting company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. They are contributing editors of Occupational Hazards.

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