Five Ways to Jump-start Your Company's Ethics

Want to make a real difference in your organization? That is going to take some hard, serious work. Here's where to start.

In the year since Congress made the Sarbanes-Oxley Act the salve for a scandal-rocked world, there's been no boom in ethical corporate behavior — just a proliferation of rules and regulations. The sad fact is, all the oversight in the world is not going to change what happens behind company doors. Want to make a real difference in your organization? That is going to take some hard, serious work. Here's where to start.

Change Your Vocabulary

"Ethics" has become too loaded a word to have much practical meaning. When the situation demands, try substituting "responsibility" or "decency." Instead of "Is it the ethical thing to do?" ask "Is it the responsible/decent thing to do?" See how you feel when you change that one little word. Gets to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? And yes, act accordingly.

Take the Values-Statement Challenge

Get comfortable with your company's values statement. It probably includes such words as "honesty" and "commitment," just as Enron's did. To make the values more concrete, write a short essay defining each one, giving specific, real-life examples from your company. Next, identify examples of internal company practices that contradict those values. Do the same for the values you proclaim publicly.

Be A Know-it-all

What bad news do you keep from yourself? Did that environmental impact statement for the new facility belong in the fiction section? Are your hiring practices a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen? It's time to face the music. Your new mantra: There is nothing I don't want to know. (Hint: Your public relations director can be a great source of information. Convince her that you want the truth.)

Hold a Risk Brainstorm

Establish a quarterly process that encourages employees to answer this question: What puts this company at risk in the next year (or five)? The people below you know what's going on. Listen to them. Identify risks that get at issues of responsibility and decency. Then take your company's online ethics course. Does it help you deal with the risks you've identified? If not, start work on one that's relevant.

Slash Your Pay

Do you earn a rich salary and bonus while your employees take pay cuts or lose their jobs? Meet with your boss (or the board, if you are the CEO) and negotiate a lower compensation package. Publicize what you've done. It may sound crazy, but in an environment of mistrust, sacrifices by top executives go a long way toward creating a culture of trust, mutual respect, and responsible business practices.

Toffler, along with Fast Company senior writer Jennifer Reingold, is the coauthor of Final Accounting: Ambition, Greed and the Fall of Arthur Andersen (Broadway Books, March 2003).

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