Integrity: Does your company impact your ethics?

By Bradford F. Spencer, Ph.D.

When we originally decided to create a newsletter theme around Organizational Integrity, I was somewhat miffed. Integrity is not organizational, but personal! People are either honest or dishonest! Initially, I believed that people brought integrity to the system, but after many hours of discussion, it has become clear that individuals not only bring integrity to the system, but behavioral integrity and reflective honesty are dramatically impacted by environmental stimulus. Systems in which “means justify ends” are seducing. It is very easy for people to join the stampede toward rationalizing their definition of “right” or “wrong,” given organizational stimulus.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, entitled “Managing for Organizational Integrity,” Lynn Sharp Paine asked the question, “Do rogues really act alone?” Her article was stimulated by the costly legal ramifications of major companies not having programs established to discourage the violation of ethics. Here she raises some very intriguing questions. “Does ethics have anything to do with management? Is the business mandate to return profits, regardless of method? Certainly, there ate guidelines and laws which bind in day-to-day business practice, but within this context, there is significant room for interpretation.

If organizations truly play a role in shaping individuals’ behaviors, then the environment we set as senior executives has a dramatic and powerful impact on the daily behaviors of each individual within the system. This does not mean individuals with greater or lesser ethical principles will not stand up to be counted, but that those of us who shape the culture are obligated to do so in a way which clearly defines and reinforces actions, resulting in interpersonal respect and “doing the right thing.”

A classic example is Sears, Roebuck, & Company’s management system, whose pressure on auto center employees to increase sales and meet quotas resulted in mechanics selling unneeded work and parts. A contrasting response from Johnson & Johnson executives during the Tylenol scare shows a dramatic difference in their approach to a problem and demonstrates one of the most ethical patterns in the American industry. Could this have any bearing on why it has done better with its stock over the years than Sears?

Behaviors reflecting honesty, and integrity go far beyond personal values and imply a major responsibility for senior executives. We need to pause in our busy schedules to reflect on what we can do on a daily basis to create expectations and reinforce our best intentions.


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