Ethics & Governance

The human dimension of conduct risk

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What would you do if you found a colleague's behaviour unacceptable, even unethical? Most of us believe we will speak up, however, research shows we often fail to act on our ethical intent. The result is moral muteness, the gap between our ethical ambitions and behaviour.

Such a personal values gap emerges when organisational members experience their workplaces as unsafe places to raise concerns. It is often the root cause of employees' cynicism around leaders' authenticity in upholding espoused organisational values.

Ethics research from the US-based Ethisphere Institute's Insights from our Culture Quotient Data Set: Volume Two - Focusing on the Role of the Manager in Influencing Ethical Culture report of 2021 showed that when employees hear their leaders discuss ethical challenges and role model ethical behaviour, they too are predisposed to ethical accountability. Where indifference is perceived, employees, in turn, assume they can ignore ethical accountability.

The social phenomenon of 'moral muteness' emerges at work when leaders fail to speak to the ethical challenges and values tensions that often accompany the pursuit of results. Culture translates in language, and choice of language signals what is important.

An organisation's language that amplifies economic or political imperatives and fails to mention the accompanying ethical challenges or tensions with espoused values effectively silences consideration of the day-to-day ethical dimension of workplace decisions.

Moral muteness flourishes where leaders fail to make ethical considerations part of everyday conversations. To safeguard against it, leaders need to take purposeful action to manage cultural pressures. Organisational culture is dynamic, requiring leaders to regularly measure and adjust systems and processes to ensure a speak-up culture emerges that can protect employees from harm and organisations from reputational damage.

Workplace culture: Enabling organisational management through speak-up initiatives

Codes of ethics and codes of conduct are increasingly part of most businesses' cultural management strategy. Despite this, they remain ineffective because hotlines simply do not work. There is now 20 years of field research to show that employees do not use them. They are often afraid that raising issues will impact negatively on them. Or they believe that nothing will change-so why bother?