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The, “Ethics flu shot,” That Works: Ruthless Intolerance

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Jacobs
January 7, 2019


The 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey indicates that rates of observed unethical conduct are close to historic lows and reporting of suspected unethical conduct has reached a historic high. However, more subordinates than ever feel pressured to cut corners. Not only that: Since 2016, the rates of retaliation for reporting wrongdoing have doubled. In addition, the number of organizations identified as having strong ethical cultures during the past decade remains unchanged: about 20%.

For public administrators, there’s an important takeaway: Ethics and compliance policies don’t get the job done even if subordinates receive an annual, “Ethics flu shot,” by reviewing and signing those policies.

What’s one to do?

Cultivating a speak up culture

In the private sector, administrators have found four changes that improve an organization’s ethical culture.

  1. Make ethics and compliance policies apply to everyone. Everyone must be held accountable…that includes administrators.
  2. Provide subordinates venues to express their voice. Reports of unethical conduct must be registered not with an immediate supervisor but to an ethics hotline, ethics and compliance officer or HR personnel. These venues assure subordinates that their feedback is desired and valued, responsible parties are listening, their concerns will be taken seriously, they will be protected and appropriate action will be taken.
  3. Uphold organizational justice. Cultivating this virtue—“The degree to which subordinates believe their voice matters,”—requires administrators to be consistent across similar cases, ensure there are no, “Sacred cows,” and share sanitized stories of actual ethical and unethical conduct as part of ongoing ethics and compliance training.
  4. Monitor for retaliation. Administrators should hold check ins with those who report unethical conduct and implicated parties—after one, three and six months—as well as with those who have left or suddenly switched departments. Administrators can also unearth signs of retaliation by comparing compensation and performance evaluations of involved parties against their peers.

These changes have increased the effectiveness of ethics and compliance training by encouraging a speak up culture wherein subordinates feel more comfortable reporting unethical conduct.

That’s what public administrators can do to improve an organization’s ethical culture. Meanwhile, research offers four don’ts:

  1. In Encouraging a Speak Up Culture, Elizabeth Morrison suggests, “Don’t react.” Why? Even the slightest annoyance signals disinterest in hearing the concerns expressed. She writes, “You have to confront the two fundamental challenges preventing subordinates from speaking up. The first is the natural feeling of futility—feeling like speaking up isn’t worth the effort or that on one wants to hear it. The second is the natural fear that speaking up will lead to retribution or harsh reactions.”
  2. Harvard Business School researchers suggest, “Don’t set unrealistic goals.” These encourage subordinates to make compromising choices, like cutting corners and being deceitful about achievement, due to the high risk of failure and the threat presented to job and status. Not providing the necessary resources, timelines, skills and support for subordinates to achieve goals—especially those administrators assign—incentivizes ethical compromises.
  3. Ambrose, Seabright, and Schminke suggest, “Don’t set conflicting goals.” These lead subordinates to conclude they’re being treated unfairly. Evidently, subordinates’ sense of fairness correlates positively with the conscious choice to sabotage the organization. The rule: “The greater the cumulative organizational injustice perceived, the more consequential the sabotage enacted.”
  4. In Four Myths about Morality and Business, Jonathan Haidt suggests, “Don’t think ‘Everyone is different and everything is relative.’” Instead, infuse everyday activities with uniform ethical considerations as well as policies and norms. These reiterate the relative value of ethical principles compared to the choices available.

The singular element

These do’s and don’ts provide public administrators guidelines concerning how to cultivate a speak up culture in their organization.

Yet, helpful as these do’s and don’ts may be, the most critical element for cultivating that culture is an administrator’s character because subordinates inevitably will interpret one’s character, especially in terms of one’s intentions. The slightest signal that unethical conduct is acceptable—even if the signal is unintentional—can undo all of the good an administrator has achieved.

For public administrators, cultivating a speak up culture requires a personal, continuous and intensive effort to make their organization’s ethical principles normative in the way they conduct themselves. Then, implementing what Carucci calls, “Ruthless intolerance of anything less,” of anyone, including themselves, administrators can nourish subordinates to speak up, thus normalizing ethical conduct.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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