Every leader of an organisation knows there are some aspects of work that are discretionary and other aspects with procedures that must be followed exactly. Do your people know what these discretionary and non-discretionary areas are?
Discretionary areas of organisations are those situations where you and your employees have room to manoeuvre, compromise, bargain and make deals within established boundaries. These boundaries are the non-discretionary aspects of an organisation.
Non-discretionary areas are topics or situations with very specific rules, regulations or other guidance that require one – and only one – way of acting. Compromising is unacceptable in these areas.
Safety is one non-discretionary area that is immediately recognisable. There are certain safety procedures that must be followed or there is a danger to workers. However, there are other areas where your employees may not have quite as clear an understanding of what is ethically correct.
To act ethically, it is vitally important that you, as an organisational leader, and your employees understand what actions fall into which areas: discretionary or non-discretionary.
Often different organisations and businesses provide different guidelines on operational latitude. These differences may be due to the responsibilities that employees have in performing their jobs, or maybe because the job requirements permit only a certain procedure.
There are several universal areas where zero tolerance for violations is appropriate for all organisations. These universally accepted norms include:
- Laws and regulations – Stop and think what would happen if you did not obey laws and regulations.
- Public and employee safety – Most public and employee safety rules were created because injuries occurred or because there was an obvious danger.
- The truthfulness of records and statements – Business is based on trust and truthfulness. If records and statements are not accurate, trust is lost.
Organisation Specific Standards
Organisations may add to this list with specific policies and procedures that they wish to enforce for the performance of the organisation or to differentiate the business unit from competitors.
Both the universal norms for ethical action and the specific policies and procedures that an organisation adopts as standards, are areas where ethics cannot be compromised. As an organisation leader, you must set the example and ensure your employees know these ethical boundaries.
It seems every day there are new stories about businesses and organisations being accused or investigated for ethical violations. These events around the world have heightened everyone’s awareness of ethical organisational practices.
Investigations of many high-profile organisations accused of unethical conduct show that most had elaborate ethics policies or guidelines. It was the people at the organisation who did not pay attention to the policies.
A key point to remember about business ethics is that in spite of the codes of ethics, ethics programs and special departments, corporations do not make ethical decisions. Individuals make ethical choices. An organisation should provide the environment or atmosphere for acting ethically, but it is the people of the business unit that put ethics into practice.
Organisational ethics involve a lot more than compliance with established policies, laws and financial regulations. These are major concerns that make headlines when they are not obeyed, so most organisations do not have problems with these issues. Instead, it’s the “little things” that cause problems.
For most business people, it is the day-to-day, seemingly insignificant actions and behaviours by individuals that represent the largest area for ethics problems – and the greatest opportunity for ethics improvement.
The little things that we do every day are often forgotten by us. However, they can make a significant impact on people who see a certain behaviour. Remember, your behaviour sets an example. Even if you are not the boss, there is always someone else who watches you for cues on how to act in certain situations – for good and bad. These observers may be your fellow workers, neighbours, your spouse, or your children. What messages are you “sending” by your actions, words and attitudes?
Examine your personal ethics
See where you stand and where you need to improve by considering the following:
- “Little white lies” you don’t (or do) tell.
- Jokes you share with others.
- The way you treat and talk about co-workers.
- Things you say to persuade someone.
- E-mails you write and forward to others.
- What you put on your billing sheets, time sheets, and expense reports.
- Office supplies you don’t (or do) take home.
- Commitments you make and keep (or don’t keep).
- Personal business you don’t (or do) conduct at work.
- “Unimportant” work rules you follow (or break).
- Things you reproduce on the copy machine.
- Standards you set for yourself.
- Level of quality you put into whatever you do.
- Credit you appropriately share (or don’t share) with others.
These, and scores of behaviours like them, reflect who you are and what you stand for. When it comes to ethics and integrity everything is important – including (and especially) “the small stuff.”
Determine if your actions are ethical
Compare them to these six basic guidelines for ethical organisational operations.
- Laws – Laws are created to help society to function. Is the action you are considering legal? Do you know the laws governing the activity? In general, ignorance of a law is no excuse for breaking the law.
- Rules & Procedures – Organisations create specific policies and procedures to help the business unit to function appropriately. Typically, these rules have developed as ways to keep the organisation successful and avoid problems. How does your planned action compare to what is stated in the organisation’s policies and procedures?
- Values – These social principles help to create society’s laws and an organisation’s policies and procedures. In turn, laws and policies reinforce the values. One example of values in operation is to ask yourself: “Does the action I’m considering follow not only the letter of the law, but also the ‘spirit’ of the law?” Is your action in agreement with the overall purpose of a law or rule? Or are you attempting to find a loophole?
- Conscience – This internal sense of right and wrong develops from an early age. Your conscience recognizes certain principles that lead to feelings of guilt if you violate the principles. Will your actions make you feel guilty? Can you truly justify your actions to yourself?
- Promises – Business is based upon trust. It is the belief that what is stated will be delivered. Will your action live up to the commitment that you made to the other person (customer, client, supplier, employee, employer) in the business relationship? Will your action build more trust?
- Heroes – Every person has at least one individual that is a role model in some way. A hero may be a parent, teacher, coach, mentor or friend. Is your action what your hero would do in the same situation? How would your hero act? Using these six guidelines will help you take actions and make choices that are ethical.