Six Ways to Create a Culture of Ethics in Any Organization

Good ethics is good business: Why have so few gotten the memo?

Posted Jul 01, 2015

used with permission from
Source: used with permission from

So often we hear about unethical and egregious behavior of organizations and their leaders that seem intent on screwing their customers, lying and cheating, and perhaps laughing all the way to the bank. It is demoralizing to so frequently learn that so many organizations and leaders just can’t be trusted. Yet, there are many ways that organizations can create a culture that supports and nurtures ethics. And good ethics is good business in the end. Closely attending to just a few important and easy to remember strategies to help create and sustain a culture of ethics could be endorsed and shared with perhaps all organizations.  These include the following:

1. Clear Expectations for What is Okay and Not Okay

All organizations have both spoken and unspoken rules and guidelines about how to act within their environments. This includes everything from attire, attitudes expressed, and behavior towards colleagues, customers, and the public. For anyone who has worked at several organizations, even within the same sector such as corporations or universities, they can likely describe how the culture of these organizations differ and sometimes differ radically.

Many of the cultural norms and expectations of an organization are never expressed in writing but are inferred once you closely observe the environment of the organization for some duration. Some organizations highlight ethical values and decision making more than others. Many may pay lip service to following ethical guidelines but then don’t practice what they preach. Some are more utilitarian than others. Others are more hospitable and gracious than others. Clear expectations for behavior among all members of an organization is the first step towards a more ethical organizational culture.

2. Modeling Desired Behavior (especially from organizational leaders)

Research conducted by well-known Stanford psychologist, Al Bandura, among others have made clear that people tend to model the behavior of others (especially well thought of and desirable others) and that leaders within any organization act as models for those below them in the organizational chart. Thus, any organizational leaders must be mindful that they are being watched very closely and that others in the organization will likely follow their lead when it comes to ethical behavior and attitudes.

Bandura defines the specific stages of observational learning to include attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Thus, for observational modeling to occur, one need to observe or attend to the model, remember the model’s behavior, reproduce the model’s behavior, and be motivated to do it again and again.

Thus, organizational leaders must practice what they preach and be sure that they model for others the desired behaviors that they wish to nurture within their organizations. If the highest standards of ethics are desired within an organization then high profiles leaders in that organization much demonstrate these standards and be beyond reproach in this regard. Their actions often will speak louder than their words when it comes to helping to create a more ethical environment within their organizations.

3. Reinforce the Behavior You Want, and Don’t Reinforce the Behavior that You Don’t Want

This is a very simple truth from basic operant conditioning that any college freshmen would learn about in their introductory psychology course. Also, it is a truth that has been known for generations. If you want behavior to continue, then reinforce it. If you want behavior to discontinue, don’t reinforce it. This is a pretty simple truth yet it is often hard to do and hard to remember for many organizations and individuals alike. And it is certainly easier said than done. Organizations must be mindful and intentional about what behaviors they want to reinforce and what behaviors they do not want reinforced. Ethical behavior must be clearly reinforced so that it will continue to occur. Problematic unethical behavior should not be reinforced if the organization wishes to extinguish these undesirable behaviors.

Offering opportunities for recognition, awards, and social reinforcements for desirable ethical behaviors can go a long way to promote the types of ethical culture desired in any organization. Certainly, these rewards or reinforcements must be thoughtfully considered and delivered with careful attention to both intended and unintended consequences of using them.

4. Focus on Skill Building and Problem Solving

Organizations can do a great deal to focus their attention on developing ethical skills and problem solving techniques. Rather than only stating what kinds of behaviors are expected or not, institutions must help with the step by step strategies for developing effective ethical decision making and behavior skills and strategies for resolving ethical dilemmas or troubles.  Workshops, easy to use reference materials, ongoing and readily available consultation from peers or mentors are just some of the many ways institutions can assist in training students and staff to best use the tools that are available to them to participate in better and more thoughtful ethical decision making.

5. Provide the Tools People Need to Act Ethically

If an organization wants to create a culture of ethics they must be sure that members have the tools that they need to do so. These include adequate and appropriate training, consultation, modeling, and supervision. These tools also include being able to bring internal and external to the organization experts in to engage staff at all levels of training and problem solving as well.

Having an ethics ombudsman or point person for an organization can be especially valuable. They or their staff can provide a focal point for getting tools and resources to better help with ethical consultation. 

6. Provide Corrective Feedback

Another basic and important principles borrowed from introductory psychology is the notion of immediate corrective feedback. Unless organizations offer timely and thoughtful corrective feedback regarding behavior they will unlikely create a culture of ethics. Reinforcement for behavior that is desired and corrective feedback for behavior that is not desired is critical to help create and sustain a culture of ethical behavior and consideration.

This corrective feedback needs to be conducted in the spirit of collaboration and education rather than in terms of punishment or chastisement. Collaboration and education allow for more openness and less defensiveness when feedback is provided. Immediate feedback is critical to maximize a fuller understating of the problem behavior as well.

used with permission from wikimedia
Source: used with permission from wikimedia


These six principles can be very helpful to a wide variety of organizations that desire to create a more ethical culture. These principles provide an easy to remember and straight forward set of suggestions that are aspirational in nature yet offer a clearer focus on ways to maximize ethical behaviors within diverse organizational climates. Having these important principles well understood and frequently used and discussed within organizational life hopefully allows all members of these organizations to be much more attentive to how their work and learning environment can be more ethically focused.  

So, what do you think?

Check out my web page at and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

And to learn more about ethics check out my book, Do the Right Thing

Copyright 2015, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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