Six Cs To Foster Integrity In The Workplace
Entrepreneurs often joke that running a start-up is like building an airplane while flying it. Teams work night and day to ready a product for launch and capture market and mindshare. It’s intense and exciting. Focus is critical. But processes and structures you ignored in favor of launch inevitably start to create problems.
You may be an innovator, but you also have to do some traditional things companies do: hire and train people, buy equipment, rent facilities, understand applicable laws. The absence of clear policies and structure in a fast-growing company can create a crisis that sends the company plunging to earth faster than a blown engine.
Robert wrote, “When I arrived at Airbnb in 2016, I saw an innovative and fast-growing platform with high-integrity leaders, but no written code of ethics or specific guidelines for our employees’ interactions with the community or with one another. Before I could go out and talk to employees about integrity and appropriate behavior, I realized that we had to have our own code of ethics to make sure we were all operating off the same playbook.”
The code Robert helped to institute at Airbnb builds on the basic principles he came to value and embrace while working at several companies throughout his career. There also are some elements of the code that are unique to Airbnb’s mission, such as that they foster belonging among strangers. Robert now calls the overall effort, for simplicity’s sake, the Six Cs.
Make no mistake: If your CEO does not embrace the importance of integrity and commits to both live by the company’s code of ethics and enforce it, forget about the other five Cs. You’re done. You will not build a high-integrity culture. Hypocrisy and ambiguity are the enemies of integrity, and if the CEO (and this also goes for the entire executive team and board members) bends or breaks the rules or only enforces them selectively, employees will never take your program seriously.
#Customized Code of Ethics
You must have a specific, published code of ethics that reflects your company’s core values as well as the norms of its particular industry, geographic location, and culture.
#Communicating the Code
Using senior leaders to communicate and reinforce the code is crucial. If all you do is paste an ethics code on a web page or print it out and bundle it with documents about the health plan and parking procedures, you will send the wrong message to the company about the importance of the code. If you try to teach the code with a canned online program or video, you will make very little impact. Think about your own experiences in this regard. If you delegate the training to a mid-level HR manager, you are suggesting that it just isn’t very important.
#Clear Reporting System
Make it easy for employees to report ethical lapses, corruption, and fraud. This is far superior to learning about problems from media inquiries, lawsuits, government regulators, or social media. Former Applied Materials CEO and chairman James Morgan, a highly respected technology executive who ran Applied for nearly three decades, had a good motto that was well known to his managers: “Bad news is good news—if you do something about it.” In other words, he wanted to hear about problems as early as possible, because then the company could fix them before they became crises. It can go against human nature to be a “fink” or a naysayer, but at Applied, people who found problems early were celebrated. That’s a great habit to reinforce.
A code must be enforced. Violations at any and every level bring consequences, which might be a warning for a first offense but can ramp up to termination. A high-integrity culture depends on fair and reasonable responses to violations. A code without consequences risks two things: First, if employees never hear about the code being referenced or enforced, they will forget about it. Your culture will develop in spite of your code rather than being shaped by it. Second, a code that exists but is not consistently enforced can become weaponized. A Silicon Valley CEO once told Robert, “Nobody ever reads the corporate handbook unless they’re trying to stick it to someone.”
This happens more often than many folks realize. For example, the #MeToo movement has unearthed situations where senior executives received complaints about a CEO’s inappropriate behavior, and in response they told the complainers’ managers to scour their records for reasons to fire the employee who complained. That is toxic behavior that destroys a culture of trust.
Integrity presentations, videos, and internal electronic and paper posters are all designed to create repetition, or what Robert calls a “constant drumbeat.” We want employees to think about the company’s values constantly when they make decisions or take initiatives that have an integrity component.
Researchers have studied what motivates people to behave in more or less honest ways, and constantly reinforcing the expectation and direction to be honest and ethical makes a difference. We also want employees to remember what their employer stands for when they are making comments on social media or anonymous workplace discussion sites.
Another element of being constant is that you want to monitor integrity issues, violations, and actions taken. In the legal department you need a dashboard that indicates the number and nature of code violation inquiries, reports, and disciplinary actions, and which way they are trending. Be alert to specific divisions that might need more training or support. Identify geographic regions where certain messages are not getting through or where special circumstances are creating issues.
Finally, you want to constantly revisit, refresh, and update your Intentional Integrity process to reflect new legal, business, or technology realities. As the company grows and adds business lines or activities, it must incorporate the new cultural implications of that growth and other unique issues into the code. Communication about integrity must not become background noise—it needs to be imaginative and memorable. You have to look for opportunities to provide teaching moments when a controversy at another company arises so you can prevent the same scenario happening in your company.
For Robert, in his integrity talks, he has a slide with headlines of other companies’ mistakes and scandals. It’s sobering. He sees grimaces in the audience. But even when it’s not your own crisis, it can be an opportunity to focus everyone’s attention on specific behaviors, both good and bad. You must constantly refresh and reinforce your values.
Integrity: A Superpower For Our Times
Dishonesty is contagious. But so is integrity.
And a great place to start is at work. The workplace provides the sort of close human interaction where the contagion of integrity can spread, fueled in each company by a shared mission and vision, and ideally supported by a leader who understands the responsibility of the position. We can bring out the best in each other.
But it won’t happen automatically. Intentionality is the match that starts the fire.