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How to Build a Strong Ethical Culture at Your Agency

Feng Yu/

Government leaders have to manage the tension between price, quality, speed and ethics. An affordable contractor may be reliably fast, but to finish quickly may cut safety corners, leading to injuries or deaths. The lowest bidder may have the best price now but could run into problems that end up costing thousands, even millions, of dollars more after the contract is under way.

Thinking beyond the project to its impact on the stakeholders and having ongoing conversations about ethical behavior helps agency teams weigh the long-term consequences of their decisions.

These seven recommended actions can help government leaders build a strong ethical culture:

1. Deal with complexity directly. Don't oversimplify decision-making. It's tempting to boil decisions down to one or two variables, but intentionally tackling complexity and gray areas will ensure that the decisions match the complexity of the situation. Not every situation will fall neatly into the guidelines. Talk through issues and variables as you weigh decisions, and ask people about what is unclear about ethics. This creates a learning environment where it is safe to discuss ethical responsibilities and how to honor them.

2. Integrate ethics into the fiber of your culture. Make ethics a part of the daily routine rather than talking about it as a task or a training program. It should become part of the regular discussion about goals priorities, projects and leadership. Let people know that they are as responsible for monitoring the agency's ethics as you are, and make sure they know what to do if they notice a problem.

3. Require respectful behavior, and carefully cultivate and protect trust. Set the stage for open conversations, shared ownership of values and respectful interpersonal behavior throughout the agency. Create an atmosphere of consistent trust. In respectful environments, people feel safer speaking up and are more likely to protect the group's ethics.

4. Make it clear that ethics is more than following laws, regulations and ethics codes. It's not enough just to talk about ethics often. It's also important to make sure you demonstrate that ethical values go way beyond laws. They include protecting human rights, ensuring social justice and protecting the environment. The ultimate goal is to foster safe communities where people thrive.

5. Expect everyone to model the highest ethics, and help them learn how. Create the nonnegotiable expectation that everyone will demonstrate ethical behavior and decision-making. Fix problems quickly and use them as learning opportunities so that they are not repeated. Show people what ethical choices look like and expect them to follow your lead.

6. Focus on the positive benefits of ethics, not just on the risks of making unethical choices. So much of what we say about ethics is about the risks and consequences. It is equally important to point out the positive benefits of leading with ethical values. Agencies that proactively lead with ethical values will likely enjoy better results, more easily recruit employees or volunteers, and make a positive difference in the community. Be sure to talk about positive ethics as much as you talk about the consequences of making a mistake so that people know what ethics (not just a failure of ethics) looks like in action.

7. Treat ethics as a permanent and ongoing conversation. Talk about ethics as the subject of lifelong learning, not something that you can ever finish. As the world changes, people have to change with it to stay ethical. Make sure people understand that they must remain vigilant and always learning.

These recommended actions are also useful for thinking through decisions. Here is how they might be applied to the problem of balancing ethics, price, quality and speed when choosing a contractor:

Deal with complexity directly. Don't oversimplify decision-making. When choosing a contractor, you must carefully balance ethics, price, quality and speed, and consider long-term impact. Just looking at the price and on-time delivery reputation is not enough. Carefully consider contractor ethics to protect human safety and the environment.

Integrate ethics into the fiber of your culture. Consider how the varying levels of contractor ethics could impact your project, and what the possible fallout of making a poor choice could be. Involve employees in screening potential contractors and suppliers to help them learn what ethical traits to look for.

Require respectful behavior, and carefully cultivate and protect trust. When choosing a contractor, consider how they treat you and their employees. Is their impact positive or do they break down trust? If you choose one with a toxic environment, the additional stress from a large contract could push people past the breaking point, harming them and the success of the project.

Make it clear that ethics is more than following laws, regulations and ethics codes. When choosing contractors, consider their impact on employees, the environment and the community. Supporting companies that have a positive impact on workers and the community increases your positive impact. In contrast, choosing companies that have a toxic workplace or that harm the environment magnifies their negative effect by every dollar you pay them.

Expect everyone to model the highest ethical standards, and help them learn how. Expect suppliers and contractors to meet the ethics codes that you are bound by. Don't fall into the trap of choosing the cheapest one at the risk of choosing an unethical company.

Focus on the positive benefits of ethics, not just on the risks of making unethical choices. When two contractors are in final consideration for a job, talk about their ethics and their overall positive impact. Choose the most ethical one with the most positive impact.

Treat ethics as an ongoing learning journey, not a task. If a contractor that you thought was ethical turns out not to be, talk about what you learned, and how you can be more attentive in your selection process in the future. Talking about ethical issues helps everyone learn how to make good ethical decisions.

Use these recommended actions to think through your ethical challenges and solutions. Have to make deep budget cuts? Use ethical values to help you choose priorities. Worried about your agency making a mistake and getting negative press coverage? Keeping ethics alive in daily conversations helps people remember why these values are so important and what they need to do to take responsibility.

What is a good executive rule of thumb for balancing ethics, quality, price and speed in day-to-day work? It doesn't matter how fast it is, or how inexpensive it is, if it's not ethical.

Linda Fisher Thornton is a leadership development consultant, author and speaker on a mission to unleash the positive power of ethical leadership. Her new book is 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership

(Image via Feng Yu/

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