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Vintage Concepts Can Help Guard Against Workplace Scandals

Virtuous management is an old-school solution to modern office issues.

“It’s vintage.” This is how I find myself describing many of my possessions lately. And while I admit that I’ve used the term as a crutch to describe stuff that is really just ripe for the garbage heap, there is also much inherent value in vintage items.

Just because something has been around for a while doesn’t mean it has to be antiquated or passé (think of a sorority pin, wedding pictures of loved ones or an antique history book bought on a first trip to Paris). These old-school things are emblematic of values that I hold dear: permanence, loyalty and perseverance.

It occurs to me, while reading through some of the coverage of recent workplace harassment scandals, that incorporating similar vintage concepts into workplace culture and goals would serve many affected organizations well.

And when I say vintage, I’m going way back — to Roman times, in fact. Virtuous business principles (or, those emphasizing the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage) have been discussed in terms of executive leadership for some time. But in understanding some of the systemic failures that have allowed bullying, abusive or harassing conduct to permeate an organization, it leads me to think that the adage “everything old is new again” would serve those organizations seeking to plan responsive supervisor training programs well.

When fashioning a response to bad workplace behavior, an employer may structure the program so that virtuous decision-making is emphasized and recognized. Training supervisors in this old-fashioned way may not only prevent future incidences of workplace harassment, but permeate decision-making so as to promote overall ethical, professional and compliant practices.

All four classical cardinal virtues address aspects of an exceptional leader. Prudence may be described as self-discipline, the prevalence of reason or having good judgment. Prudence is the opposite of negligence, which leads to liability risks in corporate settings. While a frivolous claim may always be filed against an employer, a prudent supervisor will have the good judgment to show what was done and why and possess the integrity to back it up.

In a business context, the second cardinal virtue, justice, may be described as the proper administration of work rules and the fair application of workplace policies. Fair supervisors understand the unbiased application of laws, policies and work rules, thereby reducing the likelihood of charges of discrimination or retaliation.

Supervisors need to constantly monitor whether certain behavior for some types of employees is considered acceptable, yet for others the disciplinary repercussions are swift and dire. If discipline isn’t meted out in ways that ensure procedures are followed consistently and the workplace remains welcoming, then that organization fails to exemplify the just and fair treatment of employees.

The third virtue, temperance, describes the ability to provide moderate responses. By engaging in temperate behavior, a supervisor displays a level-headedness in relating both to subordinates, peers and those up the chain of command. In addition, a supervisor shows a talent for resolving or dissuading conflicts.

The ability to moderate behavior and display level-headedness may be a particularly good quality in global or highly diverse organizations. Understanding social cues and acting accordingly may make workforces at far-flung locations feel more valued and supported and less likely to file unfair labor practices claims.

The ability to resolve or dissuade conflicts from occurring, however, also needs to be coupled with the courage to do so.

Which leads to the fourth virtue, courage — having the strength to overcome fear or difficulty in order to persevere. Developing one’s strength in addressing unfairness, emergent challenges or illegal behavior is a trait of a budding corporate leader. 

Courage requires that those who learn of allegations of workplace misconduct have the fortitude to enforce existing work rules and procedures, regardless of where the allegations may lead or who may be involved. Courage requires that a complaint involving, for example, an intern accusing a longtime executive of quid pro quo sexual advances, rife with threats of blacklisting (“You’ll never work in this town again” and the like), be dealt with deftly and promptly.

Showing courage in the ordinary workplace may leave one potentially vulnerable to criticism and somewhat exposed. But a virtuous supervisor will continue to press on simply because it is right and the process should be seen through.

Hearteningly, courage is contagious. If employees see their leaders act with courage, then they may very well be inspired to do so, too. In fact, the best supervisors not only model the cardinal virtues as individuals but also attempt to engender these traits in subordinates.

Directing those in leadership-track positions to embrace these virtues propels the overall organization into one that is emblematic of these qualities. Senior management should support supervisors as needed through their learning and development journey by fostering an environment that values fair communications and regular feedback.

Implementing workplace-training programs that emphasize classical virtues isn’t outdated. Instead, the practice ensures that the efforts achieve enduring quality and permanence. In other words, the initiatives will become a truly vintage classic. 

Marta Moakley is a legal editor at XpertHR, an online compliance service. Before joining XpertHR, Moakley practiced law in New York and Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.