Advice for IT Leaders: Building an Ethical Workplace Begins at the Top

Don Tennant
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The Nine Most Despised Work Personalities

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about cowardly leadership. In a recent post, I wrote on the topic of ethical decision making. Now, I’ve come across a new book on ethical leadership that has led me to conclude that the two topics are inextricably linked.

That book is Linda Fisher Thornton’s “7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.” Thornton, a leadership development consultant, correctly points out that creating an ethical work environment starts at the top: It all hinges on having ethical leadership. And that requires leaders to have the guts to tackle ethics head-on.

Thornton has provided some excellent advice for leaders on how to do that. Her tips are well worth sharing: 

  • Face the complexity involved in making ethical choices. Don’t oversimplify decisions. Openly discuss the ethical gray areas and acknowledge the complexity of work life. Involve others in more of the ethical decisions. Be a leader who talks about the difficult ethical choices, and help others learn to take responsibility for making ethical decisions carefully.
  • Talk about the right thing to do in the context of your daily challenges. Don’t separate ethics from day-to-day business. Make it clear to your people that ethics is “the way we operate” and not a training program or reference manual. Every activity, whether it is a training program, a client meeting, or an important top management strategy session, should include conversations about ethics.
  • Demonstrate respect for everyone all the time. Don’t allow negative interpersonal behaviors to erode trust. Make respect a load-bearing beam in your culture. Be an ethical leader who expects it and practices it. Cultivate a respectful environment where people can speak up about ethics and share the responsibility for living it. Build trust, demand open communication and share the ownership of organizational values.
  • Take responsibility broadly, and reach for the highest level of ethical leadership. Don’t think about ethics as just following laws and regulations. Take action and show employees and other stakeholders that you are actively engaged with ethical issues that matter. Demonstrate your commitment to go beyond mere compliance with laws and regulations. Prove that you are committed to ethical issues, including human rights, social justice and sustainability.
  • Hold everyone accountable, and expect leaders to model the standards. Don’t exempt anyone from meeting ethical expectations. Allow no excuses. Make sure that no one is exempted from meeting the ethical standards you adopt. Maintain the status of ethics as a total, absolute, “must do” in the organization. Hold everyone, particularly senior leaders and high-profile managers, accountable. No exceptions!
  • When you talk about ethics, don’t just talk about the negative. Celebrate positive ethical moments. Be a proactive ethical leader, championing high ethical conduct, and emphasizing prevention. Talk about what positive ethics looks like in practice as often as you talk about what to avoid. Take time to celebrate positive ethical choices.
  • Don’t ever stop. Talk about ethics as an ongoing learning journey, not a once-a-year training program. Integrate ethics into every action of your organization—everything people do, touch, or influence. Talk about ethics as an ongoing learning journey, not something you have or don’t have. Recognize that the world changes constantly, and that ethical conduct requires that everyone remain vigilant. Ethics has an important and permanent role in our work lives for as long as we live.

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