What is Ethical Culture?
Terms like “corporate culture” or “business culture” are usually descriptive, but they don’t necessarily imply an aspiration to do good. By contrast, the concept of “ethical culture” is aspirational in the best sense of the word.
While a reference to culture points to the overall environment in a particular company, a reference to ethical culture focuses on “the best” kind of environment — the way things “ought to be.” In other words, culture is about who we are (the good, the bad, the ugly) in the world of work, and an ethical culture is about putting our best selves forward in that world.
Informal and Formal Systems
Business research platform EthicalSystems.org observes that an organization’s ethical culture “can be thought of as a slice of the overall organizational culture” that’s supported by informal and formal systems. Informal systems include leadership role modeling, behavioral norms, and organizational rituals.
For example, an organization may informally support senior managers who exemplify trustworthiness by their actions, or team-building that encourages stakeholders to freely exchange ideas in a mutually respectful setting.
Formal systems include resources that support ethical structures and programs, “selection systems, policies and codes, orientation and training programs, performance management systems, authority structures, and formal decision processes.”
An ethical culture doesn’t arise out of nothing. While the informal systems piece is outside the scope of this article, the rest of this article will discuss two essential elements of formal systems — policies and training.
Codes of Conduct Codify Ethical Culture
Specifically, an uncodified ethical culture is unsustainable. It’s nearly impossible to navigate consistent ethical judgments long-term without a compass in the form of a code of conduct.
The effective development and implementation of a code of conduct makes it a living document that sustains ethical culture, not just another dead piece of paper. To effectively formalize ethical culture, codes of conduct need to be readable and relatable to employee’s day-to-day experiences.
They should be written in a language employees understand and speak — both literally and figuratively. This means a code of conduct needs to be engaging, including by avoiding legalese and using emotive language (yes, even in corporate policy).
Training Communicates Codes of Conduct
After developing a code of conduct, how can everyone at your organization gain a strong understanding of how it applies to their day-to-day ethical decision-making? Training is what communicates policy.
Just as effective codes of conduct need to be engaging and clearly relevant to employees’ experiences, effective code of conduct training must also engage workers with real-life examples, interactive design, and applicability to everyday ethical situations.
Powerful, well-designed training does this by thoughtfully reinforcing important material in successive sessions, and by involving multimedia, micro learning, and gamification. Since training does not take place in a vacuum — and learners can tell when organizational practices are inconsistent with training messages — the efficacy of training rests on the organization’s explicit commitment to ethics. The sum comprises ethical culture.
Sustaining & Maintaining Ethical Culture
Ethical culture can neither be sustained without formal systems, such as codes of conduct, nor can it be maintained without periodic — sometimes even frequent — reinforcement in the form of training. After all, ethical culture is made up of the humans that form organizations, in addition to the policies and codes of conduct that codify organizational ethics.
Reinforcement and maintenance of these systems requires communication and engagement. Training, as an important and potentially engaging means of communicating policies and codes of conduct, is an essential part of the formal systems side of ethical culture.
Don’t Settle for Mediocre Corporate Culture
Every company has an organizational culture. The difference is that not all companies have formal and informal systems in place to support an ethical culture.
An ethical culture does not happen accidentally. Once leadership commits to fostering an ethical culture, long-term sustainability requires formal systems, including documentation in a code of conduct that reflects core company values, and in training that reinforces and clearly communicates those values at all organizational levels.
Learn More About Our Code of Conduct Training
EVERFI can help support your managers with online compliance and ethics training for employees and supervisors. Additionally, EVERFI will deliver a robust, cloud-based learning management system to help you easily deploy and track our growing library of compliance training courses, including code of conduct and ethics, anti-harassment, data security, and much more. Contact us today for a free demo.