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How to discuss ethical issues at work

CFA Institute Contributor
How to Discuss Ethical Issues at Work
How to Discuss Ethical Issues at Work (Source: Getty)

If you are planning a conversation with someone at work regarding a sensitive ethical issue, there are ways to discuss the topic and get a positive outcome. The last thing an employee or co-worker wants is to feel unfairly targeted, chastised, or alienated. And the worst thing you can do is avoid the discussion altogether.

“The secret is to confront behaviour swiftly, directly, and without equivocation,” says Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. “It’s important to make sure people understand that they not only put themselves and their entire careers on the line but that they are also jeopardizing the future of the company and their colleagues and friends.”

Culture starts the conversation

To begin with, ethics should be a core part of a firm’s corporate culture and general business practice, according to Amir M. Kahana, managing partner of the law firm of Kahana & Feld in Santa Ana, California. “I would strongly advise the need for a strong ethics focus for a workplace that goes beyond compliance,” he says.

“The key to creating an ethical culture is to talk about it often, beginning the day people are hired,” says Bates. “I recommend that the first meeting with a new employee include a conversation about the firm’s values. If you live the values and hire people who adhere to values, then those who are inclined to cheat on the margins stand out and either self-select out of the firm or make themselves obvious.”

Framing the Discussion

Setting the tone and defining expectations are important initial steps for addressing uncomfortable ethical questions. The end goal for a tough discussion is to produce ethical behaviour. The trick, of course, is how to get there.

“By avoiding conversations, we are keeping ourselves safe,” says Jason Jay, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Changing your mindset about the conversation can help. “Visualise a good outcome to a discussion, and ask what would that look like,” says Jay. How you approach the person and the topic has everything to do with what you say, the words you use, your tone, your stance, and your general demeanour.

To prevent the other person from shutting down emotionally, Jay suggests beginning a difficult conversation by expressing curiosity and attempting to understand both the person and the situation. For example, he says, “Let’s enquire together [about] what happened and why it happened and what we can do together to change this.”

People often find themselves caught in a set of conflicting demands — for example, to sell or perform a certain way. “We often know that we want to act with integrity, but we may be pressured by our company to act in another way,” says Jay.

Allow people to unveil any ambivalent feelings and to confront the pressures they are experiencing through your balanced show of understanding and compassion. “Create an environment where people will foster learning and improvement and want do the right thing,” says Jay.

Hard Choices

Some ethical violations may be embarrassing and need to be addressed, but they don’t necessarily create liability situations.

If an ethical breach has occurred but there’s no potential liability, Kahana continues, “the last thing you want to do is embarrass that employee.”

Either way, he cautions employers not to overreact and recommends that the appropriate superior talk directly to the employee while being very sensitive to the person and the situation.

An accidental breach, although wrongful, can often be accepted but should be quickly rectified so that it does not happen again in the future. Much more serious types of breaches (such as outright theft of assets) shouldn’t be tolerated to any degree.

Continuous breaches by the same employee make for a different situation.

“If an employee is someone you cannot correct the behaviour of, it’s often better off letting them go,” Kahana says. He counsels that in cases of an employee’s dismissal, employers should deftly handle the situation. “Do not announce an employee has been terminated. That, in itself, is a liability, and an employee may then elect to shake down the firm.”

“Be ethical yourself but also be private and discreet,” he says. “How you treat employees and how you let them go is important. Don’t beat up an employee on the way out, which can invite a lawsuit.”

This article originally ran in the April 2018 issue of CFA Institute Magazine.

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