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Paiwei Wei/Paiwei Wei

Conventional processes for corporate ethics programs are flawed because they are too top down and fail to create a culture that encourages and welcomes the voicing of values, says Mary Gentile, a research scholar at Babson College in Massachusetts.

Typically, companies decide on a mission statement and corporate values that are then communicated to employees, with training about relevant laws, regulations and corporate policies, as well as spelling out consequences for failing to follow the rules.

In Ivey Business Journal, she describes a more practical and action-oriented program called "Giving Voice to Values." Here are its main features:

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Ask a different question

Ethics programs usually employ rules and policies to help a person figure out what to do in a given situation. The alternative view starts with the assumption that employees usually already know what is right. The question they must answer is: "When I know what the right thing to do is, how do I get it done?"

The program thus focuses on figuring out, scripting and practising what people need to say and do to be heard. "This approach is not about preaching or arguing or even merely inspiring; it's about building the 'muscle memory' for voicing values by means of actual rehearsal, individually, in organizational training sessions, or by means of internal coaching," Ms. Gentile explains.

Spotlight the positive

Storytelling helps in creating an ethical culture. But too often when organizations and their leaders try to set the framework for ethical behaviour, they focus on negative stories. They essentially try to scare staff into acting correctly. It's better to share stories of instances when people have found ways to respond to the values challenges in an organization. The stories should not serve as examples of heroism, but instead as road maps and tool kits that offer effective strategies. This counters the cynicism that no one actually does act ethically in tough situations and provides concrete examples on how it might be done well.

Play to strengths

Instead of working to clarify a person's values, as is common in ethical programs, this approach focuses instead on identifying the person's communication and style preferences and showing how to use that to become more effective at voicing values. "In other words, rather than preach to assertive risk-embracing managers that they should be more cautious and restrain themselves, this approach would say 'embrace that risk-taking personality and use it to take risks in the service of your best values,'" Ms. Gentile notes.

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Preparation helps. So the Giving Voice to Values program gives employees opportunities to script their approach to ethical dilemmas. Team meetings and formal training sessions are used to provide a chance to identify the most frequently heard reasons and rationalizations for not acting on your values. Employees then work together to develop persuasive responses to those arguments - and then practise giving those responses.

Peer coaching

Formal and informal opportunities are built to practise those scripts, working along with colleagues. That serves to counter organizational cynicism and the feeling of futility that often accompanies the prospect of acting on your values in a corporation.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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