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Digital ethics and the high cost of complacency

Most strong managers realize that their role as a leader also contains an ethical component. However, unlike other business skills, many managers don’t spend time consciously developing this trait. Perhaps this is due to the vague nature of ethics. Unlike other skills, you cannot simply evaluate a person’s ability to behave ethically. If this were the case, business laws wouldn’t be necessary. But we all know that the world we live in is much, much different. And maybe for that reason, it could be argued that we need to spend more time discussing and learning about ethical behavior in a business environment. This might be especially true in the digital age, when it seems that the laws are always playing catch-up to the pace at which technology is implemented.

Digital ethical concerns can affect almost every aspect of any businesses operations. Without realizing it, leaders face decisions with an ethical consequence on a daily basis. What level of monitoring of an employee’s digital activities is acceptable? Is it ok to collect customer information online and if so, how much? How about sharing that information with other companies that might be a good fit for the customers’ needs? These are just a few examples of questions that might arise, but, certainly, there are many, many more.

Ethical decision making is a difficult task, but there are definitely ways that any effective leader can promote digital ethics in the workplace. Remember that a manager is not simply responsible for their own actions, but for the activities of the entire organization. For that reason, it is important to develop sound policies and practices. The first step is identifying any activity that could be considered questionable. In instances where it is not clear cut, you can always consider the public relations perspective. By simply asking the question of ‘how would this activity be received by the public if it was reported by the media’ can usually help you to determine whether or not it is appropriate for the workplace or not. With many major companies facing PR nightmares in recent years, the public is becoming more conditioned in its ability to respond with outrage. In the wake of major scandals by companies like Enron, Tyco and WorldCom, criminal penalties for unethical business actions have also become much harsher. Even a minor ethical misstep can often translate into a loss of business-something every good leader wants to avoid!

Another key piece in promoting an ethical environment is for the manager to realize that their role as a leader demands that they themselves set the example for ethical behavior. The working environment of any company is strongly influenced by the manager’s actions and in order to make positive change, any change needs to start at the top! All directives, actions, and behaviors by management should always uphold the integrity and ethical values of the company. By simply doing this and providing a strong role model for all employees look to for ethical leadership, a manager can make a huge impact on how employees go about making their own daily decisions and the role that ethics plays in this decision-making process.

Aside from their own actions, management should realize that it’s important for the company to develop written standards of conduct. These should be very clear in their behavioral expectation in the workplace and they should cover all appropriate topics, including how to promote a strong relationship with customers, while also respecting their rights as consumers.  This code of conduct needs to be readily available to anyone and it should include methods for reporting and remedying ethical violations. It should also promote characteristics such as honesty, integrity, respect, loyalty and any other values promoted by the company. Once this written code is adopted, a training program can be developed to help employees understand appropriate ethical behavior. This combination of training and behavior can help any business bring ethics to the forefront of their business environment. Once that happens, it becomes a conscious part of everyday decision making and by simply ensuring that these guidelines are followed on a daily basis, managers can ensure that they are promoting an ethical environment that is sure to remain scandal-free and prosperous!

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach and author of Online Reputation:Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age
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