December 6, 2013
Building a legal and ethical workplace begins at the top. Successful leaders use clear, candid language when communicating their vision of a civil, inclusive and productive workplace, and they back it up with specific actions for which team leaders, their direct reports and others are accountable. To make the message credible and enduring, they must articulate it in their own words and at every appropriate opportunity, including management meetings, companywide meetings and other events. For example, a CEO at a major apparel manufacturer knew policies and mission statements weren’t enough. So at a key business meeting, as he spoke of sales issues and performance issues, he also told his employees: “There is certain conduct I won’t tolerate, and I don’t want you to, either.” They knew he meant business about harassment and discrimination. However, it is all too easy to fall into a trap of formulating a vision without backing it up with action. Enron Corp., for example, had a well-crafted code of ethics that included a section on workplace harmony: “Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.” Yet when Enron stock prices began to fall, key leaders sold millions of dollars of their own shares while advising employees to buy. They were conducting business in a manner completely at odds with their stated mission and values. This exemplifies the type of leadership that, in simplest terms, is all talk and no action. Leaders must act to correct problems. Too often, leaders learn of illegal workplace behavior but fail to take prompt action to correct the situation. The courts are generally unsympathetic toward a company with leadership that doesn’t act promptly and effectively. In a case against Whirlpool Corp., the company was ordered to pay more than $1 million to a female employee who suffered sexual harassment at the company’s plant. Although supervisors received repeated reports of the harassment, no one took action, leading to continued harassment and, ultimately, a large verdict against the company. A good manager needs his or her team to be comfortable bringing forward concerns early on in order to resolve issues without compromising the integrity of the organization. But employees will not report problems if they don’t trust a manager to address their concerns. True leaders must aggressively pursue the resolutions of troublesome issues if they hope to gain their employees’ trust. Creating a culture where employees are encouraged to raise their concerns and are protected from retaliation when they do so is integral to the strength of the organization. Unfortunately, many companies do just the opposite by allowing employees who speak up to be bullied, harassed or ostracized, thus discouraging others from coming forward. This is not only bad business practice, it is illegal. A jury awarded a $3.1 million verdict to a woman who complained of her employer’s failure to promote qualified women. Her employer only made a superficial investigation of her complaint and shortly thereafter failed to renew her contract, resulting in claims of retaliation and gender discrimination. Beyond the legal ramifications, leaders have a responsibility to build a culture that promotes speaking up because it helps the organization as a whole operate fairly and effectively. They must send and support the message that the company rewards honesty rather than penalizes it. This blog post was adapted from a white paper, Foundation of a Civil Workplace, http://www.eliinc.com/insights/white-papers.cfm by Stephen M. Paskoff. Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.