Copyright © 2018 by Barney Rosenberg
President, Ethics Line, LLC™
We measure everything! The height of our growing children on makeshift charts on the wall. We measure the amount of gas we pump into our car’s gas tank (OK, the machine measures it and we get to pay for it). Our fruit and vegetables are sold by the price per pound for apples or the number of bananas we buy. We know to the inch the distance from Earth to the Moon and we know exactly how long it takes for light to reach the Earth from the Sun. I think it’s 8 minutes. In the USA there’s even a government department of weights and measures.
The dirty little secret of the business ethics world is that we are not very good at measuring success! We can report on the number of people who have completed online training courses and how long it took each person to complete a training module. In one company I know, two relatively senior people simply clicked through the pages of the assigned, online ethics training and completed the mandatory, 1 hour, government required training in about 11 minutes! Their continued employment at the company was measured in days!
We are not very good at measuring whether the ethics message is taking hold. Are people adopting the values and virtues; applying them in their daily work; and conveying the importance of the commitment to ethical behavior to others. We are much better at punishment for breaches.
In early February 2018, about 120 of us attended the European Business Ethics Forum (EBEF) in Amsterdam. One of the speakers was Gabe Shawn Varges, a Senior Partner at HCM International, a prominent international consulting firm. Gabe is also a scholar and a lawyer. He is also a gifted speaker, given to making the complicated simple. My take away from his dazzling presentation (if you ever get the chance to learn from him, do it!) was that any attempt to tie compensation to ethical behavior is doomed to failure and frustration. The subject does not lend itself to the kind of measurement we routinely do on the factory floor e.g. # products shipped; failures per 1000 parts; cost of inventory. My words not his, it’s a fool’s errand.
So what are we to do? We spend small fortunes creating world-class ethics programs that satisfy our customers, regulators and suppliers. We target important messages to co-workers and the Board of Directors. But we really don’t have a clue if it’s working.
By contrast, we are much better at identifying and dealing with ethics infractions and failures. Policies I have written clearly state that “Failure to do X or doing Y can lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination from employment.” Yes, I am a lawyer.
What about those who do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do? Don’t we expect that kind of behavior? Isn’t it implicit in the job? Should we write into all job descriptions “Employee will be ethical at all times, in all things.” In annual performance reviews and goal setting, is there a way to set ethical objectives? It’s hard.
A few years ago, a senior Human Resources executive told me that he was thinking his site should take down the hotline posters which told people how they could raise questions or concerns. This executive thought that actively discouraging employees from calling the hotline would encourage them to raise those questions and concerns with leadership at their site. “That way, he said, they could solve the problems without involving Corporate.” I pulled rank and said “No. You won’t!” He didn’t.
Crime and punishment are easier to deal with than values and virtues. As I have written before, “What a difference a comma can make: Do it right now! conveys a particular message. Do it right, now! is a very different message.
Help me out. How do we/should we measure ethical behavior? Or should we just expect that people will behave that way and reward them for other things that can be measured more easily?