At one time it may have been possible, if inhumane, to run a business like the Robber Barons, on sheer fear, power and control. If a person incorrectly followed directions, made too many mistakes, or did not put in numerous extra hours, then he/she was expendable. Someone else could easily take that place in the factory.
In these days of quickly changing times and technology, increased globalization, international competition, and demanding customers and suppliers, managing with an iron fist does not bring the necessary results. A dog can be beat so many times before he bites his master. An insensitive and harsh employer can only push his employees so hard before they do their best to bring the company and its owner down. On the other hand, employees who are treated fairly, with empathy and respect will be loyal and work as a team to see the business succeed.
Similarly, during the industrial age in early America, many jobs required a work ethic that was limited and somewhat different from the characteristics necessary in today's service and information age companies. If people do not aspire to and maintain ethical behavior in work, they cannot be surprised when their actions bring them down, as well.
Perhaps situations such as Enron may have been overlooked in the past, but now, too, such behavior is unacceptable. In fact, newspapers and numerous websites have sections specifically dealing with corporate ethics or lack thereof. According to a 2005 study published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), where over 1,000 employers nation wide rated the importance of a variety of skills and qualities, honesty, integrity and communication were the skills most desired in employees.
It is a different world in the workplace, where the old saying "what goes around, comes around" is being proven over and over. Today, more than ever before, it is critical for personnel and management to have a superior work ethic. Without it, companies and industries will struggle and perhaps fail completely as productivity falls short of what is required to reach goals and attain success.
Companies are increasingly recognizing these changing needs. The Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics surveyed CEOs of large corporations to determine the most important corporate ethics issues facing the business community. According to the CEOs, the five most important ethics issues, in order of priority, are: (1) regaining the public trust, (2) effective company management in the context of today's investor expectations, (3) ensuring the integrity of financial reporting, (4) fairness of executive compensation, and (5) ethical role-modeling of senior management.
The research also found that 81% of CEOs believe that standards for corporate ethics have risen in the wake of recent controversies and 74% say their businesses have made changes in how ethics issues are handled or reported within the last two years. Modifications cited most often include enhanced internal reporting, communications and compliance procedures; ethics hotlines; and greater board oversight. The CEOs' specific top-priority plans include establishing a framework for business decision making that integrates ethics.
There is a greater emphasis on ethics, but that being said, employees have different ideas about how business ethics is defined. For example, a recent survey in Management Today (2005) showed mixed returns. Nearly one-half (49%) of workers surveyed said it was wrong and nearly one-half said it was right to bring home pens from work. Although many individuals see it as their right to take home supplies, others would not only deem this unethical but white-collar theft as well.
It is very difficult to define ethics, because they vary significantly. A work ethic is a recognized norm of behavior that promotes being personally accountable and responsible for the role and responsibilities one performs. It is based on a belief that work has a fundamental value. Work ethics are normally associated with people who work hard and do the best job possible. Here, again, many grey areas exist in definition.
Studies have found that the many characteristics of work ethics can be defined using a number of specific terms such as interpersonal skills, initiative and dependability and, most important, empathy and honesty. Interpersonal skills include the behavior, habits, attitudes, actions, appearance, and words people use that impact how they get along with others. It is easy for a person to believe that he/she has strong interpersonal skills, "Don't I have a lot of friends? Don't I get along with everyone?"
However, when looking more carefully at one's interactions, especially in a work setting, it is possible to see areas where improvements are necessary. Perhaps this person does not do well on teams, because he/she has difficulty compromising and following best practices. Or, perhaps this individual becomes very shy in groups and lets others do all the talking for him/her.
Initiative is an important work ethic, since companies require individuals who are "self starters" and can work as independent contributors without constant supervision. This not only takes knowledge and time management skills, but integrity and trust as well. Similarly, employers need to know they can count on their workers to be dependable and do what they promise.
Personally, I believe that the last two characteristics, empathy and honesty, are most important. It seems that as the world becomes more harried and stressed, people are increasingly more concerned about themselves and sometimes small inconsequentials, rather than other people and larger community needs. Empathy is the ability to listen to others and have the self-esteem and wisdom to know that they may have a better way of doing something or knowledge in areas that you lack.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey discusses the importance of empathic communication. Covey stresses the need, the power and, in some instances, the necessity, of not just going through the automatic responses that may be required for ordinary listening, but also opening oneself to those speaking in order to actually understand where they are coming from, to feel as they feel. Covey explains that the only way to establish effective communication in certain professional and personal situations is to -- as the saying goes -- "walk in their shoes." He uses the words "sensing" or what is also called "intuition" to describe the insight a person can gain through intensive, empathic listening.
Similarly, it is essential that an employee is honest in his/her representations of skills, knowledge, services and products. Customers could actually be injured or even killed if someone lies about his/her abilities in providing a service or developing a product.
As a manager of a company in my future career, I believe that it is most important to set an example for others. Too often, managers fall into the "do as I say, not as I do" syndrome. In fact, some research shows that developing work ethic plans for companies do not work because the employees see that the expectations are not completed from top down.
One of the articles I read, for example, provides examples on how to integrate the idea of honesty into the workplace (Asadker, 2004, np). Suggestions on fostering honesty include: 1) Providing a definition to follow; 2) Creating a safe environment for people to speak the truth; 3) Rewarding people for saying how they feel as well as accepting the truth from others; 4) Offering a model. Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." Workplace honesty cannot be commanded or controlled. It has to be encouraged and inspired by leaders who are honest.
Jon M. Huntsman, chairman and founder of Huntsman Corp., the world's largest privately held chemical company notes:
Frequently, I am asked why Huntsman Corp. has been successful. What's the formula for starting with nothing and arriving at wealth? My initial answer is to underscore integrity, vision, commitment,…