Trust without ethics?

Published: October 31, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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The sub-head for a story in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention recently: “Companies spend a lot of time focusing on ethical behavior. But that’s not where the crisis is.”

Author of the book, The Decision to Trust, Dr. Robert Hurley, professor at New York’s Fordham University amplifies his sub-head with the following: “Infamous frauds and financial crises have wrecked the public’s faith in business in recent years,” Hurley writes, “leading many companies to try to repair the damage by emphasizing codes of ethics. But we do not have a crisis of ethics in business today. We have a crisis of trust.”

I can’t quite figure out whether this is a matter of semantics or logic, but the ethical reality is that trust is a direct byproduct of ethics. How can one be trustworthy without practicing ethics?

Here’s where the confusion comes for me. Dr. Hurley writes that “trust comes from delivering every day on what you promise – as a manager, an employee and a company.”  He then lists “five principles leaders can adopt to demonstrate trustworthiness and embed it in their companies:

  1. Show that your interests are the same
  2. Demonstrate concern for others.
  3. Deliver on your promises.
  4. Be consistent and honest, and
  5. Communicate frequently, clearly and openly.

I hate to break it to Dr. Hurley, but those are all representative of ethical values as defined by the Josephson Institute of Ethics and thirty national leaders who developed and promote six core ethical values of Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship.

Showing that your interests are the same is the stakeholder concept. Before making a decision, an ethical decision-maker considers the consequences of their actions on all stakeholders involved.

Demonstrating a concern for others is the ethical value of caring, an amplification of the stakeholder concept which seeks to maximize the benefits and reduce the harm to any individuals involved in a decision whether it’s by an individual or a company.

Delivering on your promises is one of the four values listed under the ethical value of Trustworthiness by the Institute. The other three include honesty, integrity and loyalty.

Be consistent and honest. “High-trust leaders,” Hurley writes, “tend to feature consistency and integrity in their behavior.”  Again, integrity is one of the four values listed under the umbrella value of Trustworthiness by Michael Josephson. Honesty is yet another.

Consistent honesty in both communication and conduct is essential to the ethical decision-maker and leads to long-term trusting relationships both with clients and co-workers, which fits under Dr. Hurley’s fifth principle of communicating clearly and openly. Josephson expands honesty to include candor – the obligation to affirmatively volunteer information that another may need or want to know. Dr. Hurley uses the example of a “chief executive [who] chose to tell a vice president of marketing that he was being laid off just when the company marketing plan needed to be developed. The CEO knew it might be a setback for the company’s planning, but he told the vice president right away rather than wait until after the plan was finished.”

That’s candor, another essential component of ethical behavior.

Integrity, the other fundamental for trust, means more than just being honest. It refers to moral wholeness – a consistency between principle and practice; between words and actions. Perhaps most importantly, integrity requires us to do the right thing even if it requires us to pay more than we want or think is fair; or as Dr. Hurley puts it, “leaders must demonstrate to others that they will do the right thing for them even if it puts themselves at risk.”

Integrity is all about ethical conduct.

According to a Harris poll, “When a company is trusted… 51 percent of people will believe positive information after hearing it once or twice; and 25 percent will believe negative information after hearing it once or twice. When a company is distrusted,” Harris says, “15% will believe positive information after hearing it once or twice, while 57% will believe negative information after hearing it once or twice.”

“Restoring trust,” Hurley concludes, “will require more than ethics training. It will require leaders and organizations that earn trust by striving to manifest trustworthiness in word and deed.”

I agree. I just don’t agree with Hurley’s suggestion that companies spend too much time focusing on ethical behavior. Developing and maintaining trust is ALL about ethical conduct requiring a strong focus on ethics training throughout any organization that values its reputation. However, any training program must include follow-ups where individuals can revisit issues and continuously develop strategies for improving a company’s trustworthiness from a stated goal to practical action.

When it comes to trust, actions speak louder than any written code of behavior.



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