Ethics Corporate ethics, integrity, values — they're all getting a lot of lip service these days, and with good reason: In the last 10 years or so, they've frequently been missing in action.

The cliche, of course, is that business ethics starts with the “tone at the top,” that a company's powers-that-be will, by their own actions and values, determine the ethical direction for the entire organization.

There's one problem with that theory: It implies that the foot soldiers can't alter that direction on their own.

All too often, that's exactly what happens, says Christopher Bauer.

“There is no defining characteristic of a person with ethics problems; it could be anyone,” Bauer, a Ph.D. and namesake of Bauer Ethics Seminars, told a crowd at the 2009 Financial Executives International Summit in Dallas. “The folks causing ethical problems of every shape and size are good people like us who bring their own issues to work and deal with them there in inappropriate ways.”

Did you catch that? According to Bauer, the most common ethics problems don't involve people who break their organization's rules.

Instead, they involve people who come to work with personal problems — related to finances, or relationships, or substance abuse, or behavioral self-control — and let those problems impact their actions in the office.

“Ethics problems are rarely the result of an employee not knowing the rules,” Bauer says. “They are usually caused by unaddressed personal issues coupled with a lack of appropriate or effective self-monitoring, self-control or oversight.”

Fair enough. But suppose we suspect a co-worker is crossing the ethical line. What do we do? Bauer offers the following guidelines.

  • If we're not sure the line has been crossed, start by asking someone outside the organization. “The main goal,” Bauer says, “is to find the most credible consultant one can who has the greatest likelihood of not being able to recognize the person or organization in question. Of course, sometimes the best consultant will be in a position to recognize the object of the consultation, and that's fine — their expertise ought to trump anything else.”

  • Keep a record of such consultations “so that if anyone ever questions your behavior, you can show that you had the awareness, interest and willingness to seek truly credible input,” Bauer says.

  • If the problem is minor and you're not required to report it, start by informally asking the co-worker in question what's going on. A low-key intervention might be enough to nip the problem in the bud.
  • If it's a major problem and can't be resolved by talking directly to the co-worker, report it to the proper person or authorities.

And remember: Doing nothing is not an option, and not just for the obvious legal and ethical reasons. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that white-collar crime costs a company 5 to 7 percent of gross annually — and white-collar crime is only one type of ethics problem, Bauer says.

The tone at the top? Sure, it's important — crucial, in fact.

But as Bauer says, “The integrity of your company is being judged all day, every day on the basis of everyone on staff.”

And that means ethics is everyone's responsibility.

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