Three Challenges to an Effective Ethics Policy

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Most companies have some form of ethics policy in place. The name of the policy may vary. Some companies call them Code of Ethics, Code of Conduct, or just plain Ethics Policy. But they all have the same goal: to ensure all employees behave in an ethical fashion.

Companies create this policy for good reasons. They want to make sure their employees behave ethically and have a clear outline of the expectations and consequences of violations. But having a policy in place doesn't mean it is effective. Just ask Wells Fargo. Despite having a formal ethics policy in place that supposedly protected whistleblowers, many employees were fired for calling the hotline to report the fraud they were being ordered to commit.

There are three primary challenges companies face when an implementing an effective ethics policy. 

1. Resistance from employees

The first challenge is resistance from employees. Not because employees are inherently unethical or immoral, but when they are facing a new ethics policy, they may be made to feel that way. Companies should offer as much communication as possible to let employees know why the policy is being implemented and how it affects them. 

One way to ease the resistance is to make sure you are implementing a values-driven policy. A values-driven ethics policy will be more warmly welcomed by employees, thanks to its focus on the values and reasons behind the policy instead of the consequences of non-compliance. As Adam Kronk of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership noted recently, "Of course, there is a compliance component at every organization, but ethics is something else, something that cannot be perceived to be the responsibility of just one area, but should permeate all operations and decisions." 

2. Costs of training and other implementation fees can be high

The cost of creating an ethics policy is minimal. However, the cost of implementing and maintaining an effective ethics policy is much higher. An ethics policy is worthless if no one understands it. That's why companies must train their employees in ethics regularly. All employees should be subject to training, from the CEO to the newest hire. But not all training is equal. 

Training programs should be tailored to employees as much as possible. Employees in one department may face very different ethical dilemmas than employees in another. Customize training whenever possible to ensure employees understand the full measure of the ethics policy. 

3. Inability to determine ROI of the ethics policy

It is notoriously difficult for executives to demonstrate ROI in ethics programs, as Kronk pointed out in the same Wall Street Journal article. "ROI is hard to measure for a couple of reasons: it’s not easy to measure a lack of wrongdoing, and it’s not obvious what success looks like for some of the outcomes. For example, is higher or lower call volume on your integrity hotline more desirable?"

However, he goes on to mention that the connection of ethics and compliance programs to performance and corporate strategy is one way to increase the likelihood of having demonstrable ROI. That's why companies should focus on the long-term value of the ethics policy.

Of course, the real key to implementing an effective ethics policy has quality ethical leaders at the top. Most ethics experts agree that senior management must set the tone for integrity and ethical behavior to establish a solid foundation for the rest of the company. Confidence in ethical leadership will encourage all employees to follow and abide by the ethics policy.