Developing Consistent Character
By Kelsey Medeiros, PhD & Tristan McIntosh, MS
“And a prominent and almost comic feature of the American business world is the recurring spasms of concern about corporate ethics, though when the spasms have passed, what seems to have resulted is ever-tightening legal and regulatory compliance rather than character.”
–Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide
In his book, A Free People’s Suicide, Os Guinness enumerates his many opinions regarding the sustainability of American ideals and values. Although his main point, as the title suggests, centers on freedom, his secondary argument focuses on the need for what he terms, character.
Character is a word that is often used in conversation, but lacks a clear definition. After all, what is character? A quick google search reveals that character is “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” Perhaps more interesting, are the definitions provided by middle and high school students to CNN. As Maggie puts it, “character is whatever defines you” or as Santiago tells us, “character can be defined in different ways, there is no right or wrong.” Still, The Ivy Business Journal states, “the sum of virtues, values, and traits equal good character…” and argue that character is a key ingredient to leadership success. The underlying sentiment, however, is that character relies heavily on an individual’s capacity to make moral, or ethical, decisions.
Like the Ivy Business Journal, many organizations place character at the top of their values list. Blog posts and books have been written ad nauseum about the importance of character in business and even sports. Indeed, the business around character is booming.
Despite this fact, Os Guinness’ quote remains true. With every major ethics-related infraction in business, we see a spike in discussions around the importance of character and ethics in the workplace. Business ethics becomes a staple topic of conversation in the boardroom, on the Senate floor, and at the dining room table. However, as we move further away from the ethics-related event, discussions begin to fade away. Any legislative action or instated organizational rules fade to the background and become commonplace. As an aside, this phenomenon is not unique to business ethics. The further away one becomes from any event, the less salient the emotions and thoughts once driving our insistence on change become. Without reinforcement, we will see little change.
Legislation and organizational rules set important boundaries. They tell organizations and their employees what is allowed and what is not. Ultimately, however, these rules and this legislation cannot provide answers in all situations. This has never been clearer than with emerging technologies. As new technologies emerge, new frontiers are created. How do organizations handle the mass influx of data they receive on consumers and employees? How should it be used? Legislation, and often rules, are enacted after their emergence and typically, only after someone has tested their boundaries. Rules and legislation do offer some guidance, but cannot ensure that employees will make good decisions in all situations.
Thus, we are brought back to this idea of character. How can organizations ensure that their employees possess the necessary character to navigate the murky waters of ethical dilemmas? How can organizations ensure that their employees won’t “cook the books” or treat others unfairly? The short answer is this: no matter what steps an organization takes, there is no guarantee that its employees will make the right decision every time. However, there are several potential avenues for increasing the likelihood that employees will behave ethically.
From a human resources standpoint, there are three potential entry points: selection, training & development, and the organizational culture. Many organizations already assess character in their hiring process by administering integrity tests. Although integrity tests provide some information, the current state of integrity tests is not overwhelmingly scientifically-sound or promising. One reason for this is the contextual limitations of character. We know from years of research that when the environment creates the perfect cocktail for unethical behavior, even those of us with the strongest character may be susceptible to making an unethical decision or engaging in unethical behavior.
At Ethics Advantage, we strongly advocate for intervening through training and the organizational culture. Using the scientific literature as a starting point, we argue that organizations should provide employees with a training focused on potential and emerging issues, cognitive tools to aid in managing the decision making process, and practice with identifying issues and applying these tools. This approach to training will significantly improve ethical decision making in the long-term. Further, we are adamant that no training effort, no matter how sound, relevant, and engaging, will succeed if the external environment fails to support the training content. At Ethics Advantage, we emphasize the importance of aligning the culture of an organization with the desired ethical behavior. This entails ensuring that leaders understand and encourage the application of the training content, utilize reward and punishment systems appropriately react to ethical and unethical behavior, and provide practice opportunities for employees to continue engaging with the training material after leaving the course.
In order to stop the fluctuations in perceived importance of business ethics, organizations need to place employee and cultural development at the forefront of their business. This preventative, rather than a reactive, approach, allows for consistency in our thinking around business ethics and ultimately, consistency in our ethical behavior, or character.
For more information on designing effective ethics programs in your organization, contact us about our forthcoming book:
Ethics Advantage: Leveraging Data to Build Effective Ethics Training Programs and Sustainable Organizations
The Ethics Advantage Team