A Simple Equation for Ethics in Action

By Ryan M. Hartman

Photo: iStock

Everyday actions and decisions, while important in every industry, are especially critical in the defense industry. Even the smallest decisions are irreversible and often have direct and immediate implications on the lives of others. These are facts that none of us take lightly.

This environment of decision making is also critical to an ethical culture for it is only through sound decision making that such a culture will exist. I learned something very important about culture long ago — that culture is what happens when the leader is not physically present. This concept speaks to the importance of a leader’s role in creating the environment and framework for an ethical culture.

Creating an ethical environment requires first and foremost a commitment to ethics — a commitment that entails much more than writing an ethics statement or code of conduct. While these are both very important documents, they must exist not for the sake of documentation, but to genuinely guide the daily actions and decisions of each member in an organization toward “doing the right thing.” Ethics can mean as much or as little as the actions of the company’s leadership and team members determine. Therefore, over time, ethics have the potential to become as integral an aspect of a company’s culture as the employees themselves.

Running an ethical business requires employees to recognize they are united as a team working within and toward a common ethical standard. Remembering that culture is what happens when the leader is not around, teammates are left to exhibit the behaviors and make decisions consistent with the environment and framework that the leaders have created. Employees therefore have an obligation to look out for each other and help ensure that they and their teammates are consistent with their ethical actions and decision making.

To achieve our company’s ethical culture, as well as our mission and vision, Insitu adopted four pillars that guide us: perform, pioneer, unite and care. These pillars and their messages consistently guide each of us toward making the right decisions, whether at the office, on the road or in the field.

In order to provide customers with on-site support for their operations, portions of our team are often geographically disconnected from the rest of the company. These satellite teams operate in extreme environments and possess a subculture of “getting the job done at all costs.” In the heat of a mission, a team’s dedication to performing has the potential to cloud Insitu’s broader culture of making sound and ethical decisions. The idea that teammates have an obligation to support one another in upholding our ethical standard extends to our fielded teams, who face ethical dilemmas on a regular basis.

To ensure that this support transcends geographic barriers, we provide our deployed teams with a resource called the Operations Action Center, which serves as an accessible, human support system for those in the thick of the action, and a connecting force for those physically disconnected from the company culture back home. Receiving calls at all hours of the day or night, the center responds rapidly, constructively and ethically, helping bridge the geographic disconnect and guide the decisions of our deployed teams. These employees provide a firm foundation of ethics that our satellite teams can rely on when feeling swayed by pressure.

Without the support and dedication of each team member, this ethical culture could not transcend the barriers that it does. These concepts are applicable not only to our team, but to those in any industry that is willing to dedicate itself to maintaining an ethical culture, regardless of the challenges and pressures it may encounter.

The common thread throughout all of this and the key in creating and sustaining an ethical environment is sound decision making, along with the absolute need for an environment and framework within which a culture of ethical decision making is prevalent.

It should be no surprise that a firm of engineers often associates mathematical equations with a business context. For example, Perception = Reality + Communication. This means that one’s perception is reality with or without communication, and therefore someone’s perception can only be correct with proper communication of that reality. We also associate A = πr² with business growth. If any given partner or teammate is a “slice of a pie,” by working to grow the area of the entire pie, everyone grows exponentially — a much more efficient strategy than expanding only one wedge of the pie.

As with shaping perceptions and driving business growth, an equation is also considered in our ethical decision-making processes: P = f(x), where P is the probability of an ethical outcome and x is the amount of money involved with the situation. This equation highlights the bias that can occur when financial stakes are high. Our acknowledgement of this bias drives our understanding that P (probability of an ethical outcome) should invariably remain at 1, regardless of the function of x (money involved in the situation).

This equation provides a clear vision of what is right and wrong in conducting ethical business and helps identify the external factors that influence us away from doing the right thing. Despite the perception of ambiguity these pressures convince us of, there is no ambiguity in ethics.

This final concept is a simple one to walk away with — in sound decision making, there is no gray area. While external pressures may attempt to sway our decisions, it is critical to always remember that the probability of an ethical outcome is not an equation to be influenced by variables, but rather is a constant number. The decision of what that number will be is up to the members of a team.

Ryan M. Hartman is president and CEO of Insitu Inc.

Topics: Defense Contracting, Defense Contracting

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