Insight by Mark Surrette, President


Ethics in business is really no different than ethics in life – ethics are the fundamental building blocks to an organization. Ethical and value-based organizations recruit great people and keep great people to build longevity and have long-term success.

Ethics are certainly en vogue. With the demise of Enron and WorldCom of recent times, accountability and proper financial reporting has become to what many people equate ethics. Yet, the audit department is not where ethics resides. Ethics reside in human resources. Human resources must be the leader and the champion of ethics because it is here where the intellectual capital for the entire organization resides – it’s the home room. The marketing department has products to promote, the finance area has books to keep and operations have plants to run. Human resources have people and it cuts across the entire organization - all disciplines and all functional areas. While important, human resources should have less to do with tactical areas like benefits and compensation and more to do with behaviours, leadership capabilities, values and ethics. These less tangible elements are what form the basis of a healthy and successful organization.

Human resources needs to set the tone for expected and appropriate behaviours by which employees at all levels must abide. To the point where most informed people can look at an organization faced with a situation and be able to prejudge how it will respond to that situation if it is behaving in an ethical fashion.

An organization’s ethics are formalized not by putting words on paper but by living the words and by rewarding appropriate behaviours and having consequences for inappropriate behaviour. For example, the language we use is paramount in establishing ethical behaviour. If we use language that is less than appropriate for the organization we want to be - then the entire organization will degrade. Like it or not, language sets up culture and the firm’s personality – it is a portal into our true selves. The way we talk about our competitors, our clients, our employees and our communities speaks volumes about our ethics.

Consider for a moment the health care industry. In certain health centres we hear the term ‘bed blockers’ or ‘alc patients’ to describe elderly patients who should be in a long term care facility but space is not available. Think of how the families must feel when they hear these terms. Think about how staff views the patients who are labeled by these terms. We are talking about our mothers and fathers here, not some technical idiosyncrasy. Would it not set up a better construct to refer to them as ‘frail elderly’ patients. When we stop and reflect closely, we find that language truly sets the stage for our behaviours.

Think about the ramifications when we hear people in corporations talk about ‘killing the competitor’ when discussing a new marketing program, or ‘creative accounting’ when talking about year end statements needed to secure bonuses. The use of this type of language gives us a perspective into the ethics and values of a particular organization.

Language is but one indicator of an organization’s ethics. Future articles will discuss other keys to ethical behavior in the hope that by illustrating these issues we will cause you to pause, give thought and create a dialogue on the topic in our attempt to provoke HR Thought Leadership.

And remember behaving ethically really comes down to this: doing the right thing.

Mark Surrette is the President of Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada's leading integrated human capital solutions provider. Mark has extensive experience in successfully recruiting executive talent and providing strategic HR advice to organizations throughout our region.