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Most employers and employees strive every day to do their best. In my experience, few are determined to act inappropriately or unethically. That said, it does happen, in ways that often aren’t overt – or in ways that are justified or explained as “something we’ve always done.”
We are well. In fact, New Zealand ranks at the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index, a measure of which countries avoid (or adequately deal with) harmful behavior such as bribery and corruption. Ranking first out of 180 countries ranked by Transparency International, this is great news.
But this does not mean that we are immune to the emergence of bad practices. Maintaining an ethical workplace does not happen by chance. It takes effort. If passed, MBIE’s bill will require employers to maintain an ethical workplace by actively preventing and reporting misconduct.
“Willful blindness” will no longer be an excuse for continued coercion, harassment, manipulation, or subjugation. Here is what companies will have to answer.
Lead with Integrity
What matters most when it comes to establishing and maintaining high levels of ethical behavior is the tone coming from the leadership. The way management presents itself sends clear signals to other employees. The goal is to “follow the example” with employees and hold leaders accountable for their actions.
Globally, more and more companies are beginning to measure and reward performance based on ethical behavior. Some of those linking environmental, social and governance (ESG) results to executive compensation include companies like BP, Danone, Pepsico and Unilever.
Of course, there are also direct costs to the business of being associated with unethical behavior in terms of fines, liability of directors, and destruction of an organization’s number one asset: his reputation. When trust is broken, it can be almost impossible to fix it. No one wants to shop or work for a company known to condone bullying, harassment, or bribery or other examples of poor work practices.
expect the best
Be clear with employees about the behavior you expect and what is acceptable and what is not. Ethical codes of conduct are now increasingly used to define issues such as the acceptance of gifts, inducements or the sharing of information. Make sure you understand how staff should ask for approvals before doing something that could be considered a gray area.
Give them the tools
Training is key to ensuring employees understand ethical expectations – not just once, but consistently. Rehearse regularly, update any policy or legislative changes and ensure there is careful consideration when onboarding new employees. Expectations of ethical behavior should also be included in any “house rules” that employees are required to abide by.
With the advent of new tools aimed at giving employers a better understanding of the culture and what staff think of the company, there is the added benefit of being able to note any red flags that might be precursors to a decline in ethical behavior. Properly designed and regularly deployed employee engagement surveys can help establish a baseline of attitudes within the company.
The results of these surveys can inform training needs and highlight areas of risk that require attention. The key to employee engagement is, again, trust. All key findings should be shared and discussed with all employees. Also seek their input on corrective actions that could be taken. This demonstrates a desire for transparency.
Search what’s new
Increasingly, there are intuitive technology-driven tools, such as the Ethical VOICE platform launched last year by New Zealand news company AskYourTeam, that enable a more continuous view of culture and work practices in the workplace. Ethical VOICE gives every worker in an organization, at all levels of that organization, the ability to speak freely and 100% anonymously about what’s really going on at work, using their smartphone.
It has already been tested in the horticultural sector, which has been a hot spot for unethical employment practices, with great success. Today, Ethical VOICE is picked up by major New Zealand companies, some of which operate overseas factories, to ensure that no effort is left to chance in identifying bad practice.
Tools like Ethical VOICE (Ulala is another early adopter of mobile worker engagement) can help get information out to employees and feed back into the organization. This approach has many advantages. First, such rich data helps improve decision-making and improve productivity. Second, employees who feel respected at work – who feel they can contribute and are listened to – take ownership of company values and are better able to contribute their own skills.
Operating an ethical workplace is not only preferable, it is essential. Human resources as a discipline is not just about posting jobs and dealing with workplace issues. It’s about understanding that employee engagement can act as a key driver, or even a key inhibitor, to business success.
Brent Wilton is a director of Tūhana Business and Human Rights Limited.