Understanding the Value of Ethics Surveys

By Dave Melcher
A healthy ethical culture is a critical component of all successful businesses, regardless of size or complexity. 

And, as with any other important business priority, such as information technology, human resources, operations or engineering, in order to be successful in building and sustaining an ethical culture, there must be a clear and deliberate strategy, a commitment to deploy the necessary resources and oversight, as well as conducting routine monitoring and evaluation.

The key question that every organization’s senior leadership team should ask itself is, “How do we know if our corporate culture is healthy?”

A healthy culture is one where employees feel engaged and that is conducted ethically and in compliance with all applicable law. A culture where unethical behavior is encouraged or even tolerated erodes morale, negatively impacts employee performance and, in the long run, is likely to result in violations of the law, leading to significant cost and loss of corporate reputation. When employees feel good about the workplace and the company’s reputation as an ethical company, they are less likely to worry about being asked or encouraged to act in a way that is inconsistent with personal values, are able to focus more on their jobs and feel a sense of pride in where they work, resulting in increased organizational productivity.

The right culture can only be achieved and sustained if a company has put forth the infrastructure and processes that all effective ethics and compliance programs should have, to include a corporate code of conduct, two-way communication channels to include anonymous reporting, risk assessments, investigations of ethics concerns and meaningful disciplinary action for unethical activities. These tools enable leadership to gain insights into how employees and managers are behaving and to spot and address systemic issues before they become major problems.

The adage of “what gets measured, gets managed” applies to organizational culture as well. Strong ethics and compliance policies and processes alone are not a sufficient measure of a company’s ethical culture. And although there are a number of other sources of cultural data, such as town halls, focus groups, human resource data involving exit interviews, complaints, trends and turnover rates, these metrics and data points reflect the behaviors and attitudes of only a portion of the employee population and should not be viewed as capturing the attitudes and perceptions of all.

The systematic use of ethics surveys that engage all employees should be a tool that all corporations use to more accurately gauge cultural health. Effective leaders presented with reliable data based on statistics will ensure that the necessary action is taken to address any potential issues and/or make improvements.

The U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines have long required “periodic measurement of program effectiveness.” Certainly, the use of surveys is helpful in addressing this requirement. But beyond merely adhering to governmental guidelines, the routine deployment of ethics surveys invariably precipitates discussion and leadership engagement, which by itself is a constructive outcome. More importantly, the most significant risks that leaders often face are those they are unaware of, or do not even have reason to anticipate. Ethics survey findings provide valuable insight into issues that otherwise may not surface until it is too late.

Properly structured, ethical surveys should reveal general employee perceptions regarding trust in management, fear of retaliation, how the company rewards employees for ethical behavior and, conversely, disciplines employees for unethical behavior. Knowing this general perception is particularly important because it provides leadership insight into whether leaders are engaging the entire workforce in promoting a company-wide sense of ethics, fairness and candor.

Ethics surveys can also capture data at a granular level, broken down by division, location or program, which is essential, not only to capture the full landscape of a company’s ethical culture, but also to tailor decision making and remedial actions to problems that may be isolated to a particular individual, or group.

When deployed on a regular and systematic basis and managed effectively, ethics surveys become integral to the fabric of a business, and are often reliable in yielding data that can enhance decision making at all levels. The findings are further enhanced when an organization’s data is benchmarked against similar organizations or within a specific industry, which results in comparative data that provides a standard that allows a company to evaluate itself and measure progress, or regression.

Ethics surveys also act as a mechanism for employees to be individually and collectively heard, providing employees with a voice that if validated through communication and actions can result in improved morale, greater productivity and improvements in overall organizational performance. And, to the extent that a company’s culture of candor and openness is such that employees can rely on knowing the results of surveys, whether good, bad or ugly, employees know their voice is important and is being heard by corporate leadership.

Every organization’s long-term success is dependent upon having an ethical culture, one in which employees feel invested in the company’s success achieved the right way. This goes well beyond employees’ compliance with laws and regulations. The systematic use of ethics surveys offer significant value as a gauge of a healthy ethical culture, employee engagement and data for improved decision making, and a mechanism for employees to be heard.

The ultimate value that ethics surveys provide is to maintain an organizational culture based on core ethical values, an essential element to preserve the value that corporations create in the form of jobs, customer satisfaction with quality products and services, and shareholder return.

Topics: Business Trends, Test and Evaluation

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