How to be an ethical role model in a corporate world

Because doing the right thing matters.

How to be an ethical role model in a corporate world

Being a great leader means doing what's right.

Are you an ethical leader? And does that really matter?

According to one survey from corporate ethics and compliance firm LRN Corporation, it does.

Eighty-three percent of respondents believe their companies would make better decisions if they followed the Golden Rule, and 59% think they’d be more successful at big challenges if their leadership demonstrated more moral authority.

Employees want more from their top brass, not just because of how it affects their day-to-day, but because of the impact it has on everyone else at the company—and ultimately, the corporate culture and maybe even the bottom line.

Despite the desire for ethical leadership, LRN's survey shows that nearly 80% of employees at large companies report that their bosses aren’t moral leaders.

How do employees want their leaders to “be better?”

Among other things, only 15% of workers say their leader elevates others by being empathetic and connected, only 14% say leaders acknowledge their own failings, and only 13% say their leaders make amends when they make mistakes.

You don’t have to be among the 80%. Take the right path—and be an ethical beacon for your workers—with the following strategies.

Treat employees well

“Great leaders take an interest in people,” says Matthew Kelly, founder and president of Floyd Consulting and author of the forthcoming The Culture Solution. “In particular, they’re really committed to growing people.”

Kelly believes that a company’s first customers are its employees. “You’re selling the experience of working there,” Kelly says. “Your second customers are the people who consume your goods and services, and the way you treat your first customer is how they will treat your second customer.”

In other words, the way you treat your employees will trickle down to your customers.

Hire the right people

Make a practice of employing people who match the ethical values you’re trying to display. That means being rigorous about the interview process and hiring people you know can do the job.

One key to success: Research the worker you’re hiring.

“The great majority of companies don’t check references,” Kelly says. “Checking references is more important than interviewing people, because people have become experts at interviewing. It’s like a first date—everyone puts their best foot forward.”

This advice extends to managing employees who’ve demonstrated unethical conduct. “Ethical leaders say ‘no’ to the bad behavior now being normalized,” says Tamica Sears, an executive coach and owner of Sears Coaching.

Be sensitive to changing values

An ethical role model to a baby boomer may look somewhat different from an ethical role model to a millennial—and it’s worthwhile to understand that there may be a gap.

For instance, millennial workers may find no issue with conducting personal business on company time, since they’re more used to combining their work and personal lives.

“If you look at shared values with an organization 25 years ago, versus shared values with an organization of any size today, there’s a greater X factor separating the two,” Kelly says. “That’s creating real challenges for leaders.”

It may be useful to incorporate ethics training into the workplace, both for new hires and for executives to close the shared-values gap.

Be transparent and visible

Many employees, especially at large firms, only learn about their senior leaders in two ways: via news articles or carefully crafted emails or speeches, says Scot Hulshizer, a former corporate executive and founder of career firm The Resume Expert.

“A role model is someone after whom others choose or desire to model their own behavior,” Hulshizer says. “Absent visibility into the challenges executives face and how they choose to handle them, employees are left guessing about the honesty and integrity of a leader.”

While he doesn’t advocate reckless levels of disclosure about confidential topics, Hulshizer recommends that leaders allow others to see the choices they make and the behavior they tolerate. “Perhaps even more important, understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind decisions helps employees understand what is important to the company,” he says.

Walk the walk

If you expect your team to behave in a certain way, you have to abide by the same rules.  

“It can be as simple as having an expectation that your team be on time, yet this executive is always late to meetings or even late coming into the office,” says Ivelices Thomas, founder and CEO of human resources advisory firm HR & Beyond. “It’s about what employees perceive and see.”

It’s the most basic of principles, but not every leader gets it right. “When it comes to being trusted, there is no way around earning it,” Thomas says. “A leader can’t just talk about it, they must demonstrate a reason to be trusted through their work and actions.”

Practice accountability

If you mess up, take responsibility for it. Hold yourself accountable for results, whether they’re good or bad. Ethical leaders don’t pass the blame.

“If people don’t feel their leader is being held accountable by somebody somewhere, they’re going to buck at any accountability they’re being held to themselves,” Kelly says.

It’s also important that your team feel that they can hold you responsible. “Safety in an organization today is much more about, can we hold our leaders accountable in a respectful way and not be fearful for our jobs,” Kelly says. If you’re accessible and open, it will go a long way.

Behave on social media

There are so many ways to be visible. It pays to be aware of them and cognizant of the message you’re putting out into the world.

“We’ve had employees who will Google executives as they’re coming into an organization to see who they are, what they’re about, what their past has been,” Thomas says. “That sets the tone.”

Red flags include public social media battles, such as a dispute with a previous board or negative comments you’ve made on another organization’s page. “Something that is negative that can allude to someone who can raise conflict, or who has been a part of conflict, just gives you pause,” Thomas says. “That can give you a glimpse into problems that can surface in the future within your own organization.”

Choose a workplace with your values

Are you putting your best ethical foot forward but feel like it’s not appreciated or valued? It’s possible that you’re working at the wrong company, with the wrong people.

As important as it is for you to lead by example, if your employees don’t want to follow and practice ethical behaviors themselves, it may be time to look elsewhere.

Join Monster to have access to millions of senior and executive level jobs. See what’s out there, and be willing to jump ship to find the corporate culture that matches your value system.