Susan Coffey is the Chief Executive Officer, Public Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.
The public demands ethical business practices, and corporate executives and their employees agree that leaders should establish a culture that is then modeled companywide. Yet, despite these broad agreements, there are harbingers of an ethical divide growing in workplaces, and it’s critical that leaders empower employees to do their part to close it.
A Generational Divide
As part of our initiative to explore the state of global business ethics, AICPA & CIMA recently partnered with the Harris Poll to conduct a study of 1,820 opinion leaders, business leaders and future talent in the U.S. and U.K. Our goal was to gain insight into the perceptions of business ethics, learn how businesses are advancing ethics within their organization and discover what is and isn’t working.
The findings are encouraging overall, but there are signs that business leaders need to do more to empower the future generation of leaders to become ethical standard-bearers in their own right.
Specifically, we found that many of the traditional practices for instilling an ethical culture may not be as effective as once thought—particularly among younger employees who are the next generation of business leaders.
Nearly 90% of employees said they were familiar with their company’s code of ethics, and 71% said they received ethics training. However, just 26% of future talent found it “very effective”; contrasted with 48% of business leaders who found it very effective. Future talent was defined as respondents ages 20 to 30 pursuing an advanced degree, looking for work or working for less than 10 years.
And while 1 in 3 younger workers had faced an ethical dilemma at work, just 24% of them felt “very prepared” to handle it.
A Hallmark Of A Leading Company
In my career as a certified public accountant, and now as an executive at a global association representing the accounting profession, ethics have always been at the forefront of my work.
In my profession, we are required to abide by strict codes of conduct, and we have robust self-regulatory mechanisms in place. However, pressure to act unethically can happen in any profession, even those with rigorous frameworks. Guardrails can help prevent accidents, misunderstandings or blurring of lines that lead to unethical behavior, but they can’t completely eliminate them.
Every business needs to be thinking about and establishing its own ethical framework that, when combined with training and leadership, promotes good behavior through action and empowers everyone in the company to do the right thing. At the end of the day, consumers believe that establishing ethical business practices is a hallmark of any leading company.
In fact, in our survey, ethical business practices was one of the top four most important measurements of a successful business. This underscores that ethics aren’t a nice-to-have; they are a must-have for any organization to be successful.
How You Can Model Ethical Behavior In Your Organization
As leaders, we must continually ask ourselves, “Am I modeling and elevating good, ethical behavior within the organization?” In practice, that means:
• Immediately taking responsibility for unethical actions that occur in the workplace. When unethical behavior is detected at your organization, use this as an opportunity to reinforce key principles in your code of conduct.
• Modeling ethical leadership every day. In addition to ensuring your own behavior aligns with the company’s values, take the time to recognize and reward employees who model ethical behavior.
• Normalizing discussions about your company’s code of conduct. Simply posting the code online is not enough. Leaders should regularly reinforce key ethical principles and create an open-door policy for employees to identify unethical behaviors in the workplace.
Businesses must also reframe training to be more engaging and impactful and to ensure managers are prepared to help employees navigate ethical dilemmas. Training content must reflect the changes in today’s workforce and be delivered in ways that truly resonate with younger workers. This could include, for example, reinforcing your code of conduct through role-playing exercises, facilitating conversations about company-specific case studies and hosting shorter sessions throughout the year on emerging topics. We can’t assume what we’ve always done is enough to keep pace with demands to be more ethical.
As leaders, we must elevate ethics, and then we must invest time, talent and resources into making ethics a living business priority. Not just because business success depends upon it, but because our employees and the public deserve nothing less.
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