An honest look at integrity

By Juliette Alban-Metcalfe,

The impact of the exposure of a lack of integrity on companies’ performance and reputation is well-publicised through cautionary tales such as the fallout from the “Greyball” software being exposed at Uber, and the impact of the emissions scandal at VW. Less well publicised is the ongoing toll that a lack of integrity in the corporate culture can have on the motivation, stress and general wellbeing of employees. Here, we define a lack of integrity as “all or parts of an organisation acting contrary to its espoused values”.

It can be damaging to morale for all employees when integrity is lacking in an organisation, and particularly excruciating for PR and Internal Comms specialists to perform under these conditions. The good news is that if you’re one of these people, you can take a proactive role in turning the situation around for the benefit of everyone. Here’s how:

Present a business case for the Board to take integrity more seriously

How people behave within an organisation – what they do and don’t do, what they pay attention to and what they ignore – are defined both explicitly and implicitly by the behaviour and actions of the Board (or equivalent team). Therefore, a key foundation for increasing integrity within your organisation is strengthening belief and commitment in its importance among people at this level.

You may be in an organisation where the Board believes that integrity is key, but they fail to communicate this sufficiently in what they communicate, or how they deal with issues that arise. Or, you may be in an organisation where the Board doesn’t seem to value integrity much at all. Either way, it can be a powerful catalyst to use engaging examples of how a lack of integrity has led to the catastrophes of other organisations in your own or similar sectors to help strengthen their commitment to this issue. A simple internet search can provide you with useful examples.

Offer the Board guidance on how to signal their commitment to integrity more clearly

Working with Boards for many years has taught me that much of what they neglect to do comes both from a lack of awareness of its importance (as addressed above), and a lack of understanding of how to act effectively on their concern for an issue. With this in mind, it can be useful for you to provide guidance yourself, or through external support, to increase your Board’s understanding of how they can act on their concerns around integrity as a major risk factor. Some useful examples of ongoing considerations for your Board are provided in a publication by ICAEW:

  • Do directors and senior management provide a clear signal to other employees and outside stakeholders that integrity is important to the performance and reputation of the organisation?
  • Does the board devote resources and management time to it?
  • Do directors discuss integrity issues at board meetings on a regular basis and act upon those discussions as appropriate?
  • Are discussions on integrity on the risk agenda?
  • Do directors and management obtain feedback about the performance of the organisation and its leadership against its stated objectives in this area?

It is often assumed that leaders who engage and motivate their people naturally have integrity as a core value. However, research suggests that even among those leaders who enhance performance by engaging others in following their lead, their personal integrity must be assessed. When it isn’t, their organisation can’t be sure that they aren’t leading others into activities that might be good for the organisation in the short term but threaten the company’s future sustainability. This is because they are unethical (not in line with the company’s values) and may well lead to significant problems down the line. Massaging figures, inappropriate use of customer data, or taking short-cuts to success that ignore governance issues are three examples of this.

Ensuring that integrity among leaders is appropriately addressed means that selection, performance management, and promotion criteria must include assessment and consideration of an individual’s integrity. The Engaging Transformational Leadership model we developed over the last 15 years has integrity, honesty and consistency at the core, and our research demonstrates how essential it is for employees in the UK to want to follow their leader when times are tough, how those factors reduce stress and increase performance, and therefore are key to increasing the retention of talented people. We also demonstrate to organisations how simple these factors can be to assess.

The same is true of all employees

If we’re to address the issue of integrity in organisations, we must not be naïve about how challenging it can be for people to speak up. Most of us have had experiences of trying to do the right thing and being ignored, or rebuffed. Sadly, it is no exaggeration to say that many “whistleblowers” have even had their lives ruined by their organisation’s determination to silence them. With this in mind, you will probably find it useful to work to reduce anxiety by publishing expectations (ideally in employee contracts and handbooks) that it is a responsibility for everyone to report behaviour observed or requested of them that is lacking in integrity. Equally important is that your organisation is committed to creating consequences for anyone who violates these expectations. Trust in the process may take time to build, but communicating expectations and leading by example is an essential foundation.

Create a clear route for employees to raise issues and concerns

Post mortems of large corporate collapses typically find that many people within the organisation foresaw disaster if things didn’t change, but they didn’t feel it was ok for them to do anything other than follow directions from their managers. Avoiding this type of situation can be helped by creating a clear code of conduct that not only defines what is unacceptable behaviour at all levels, but also what positive expectations the organisation has for its people. No assumptions should be made about how well individuals will be able to translate these guidelines into their own role, and so providing training for them to better understand this link can be very valuable.

You may also find it useful to identify one or two key Directors in your organisation who can be trusted to take matters of integrity seriously. It should also be made clear that, in line with the expectation that employees have a duty to report their concerns, they are expected to escalate them further if they don’t feel that they will be taken seriously enough by their own line manager or by his/her boss. Providing a confidential route to expressing concerns may seem extreme, but it may be essential to exposing issues that are of genuine threat to your organisation because they are shrouded in a team or departmental culture of intimidation or strict hierarchy. Furthermore, your Board should be made aware of any reports that arise, however, small, so that they can take a view from a governance perspective as to how serious they are – and avoid others being able to derail them, and to stem issues at an early stage.

Build a culture of two-way feedback

Ultimately, ensuring that an organisation protects its integrity in order to ensure future success will come down to building the right culture over time. Having a leadership culture of managers regularly seeking feedback both formally and informally on how they are performing and what they and the department could do more effectively is an important foundation. Not only does a culture of regularly seeking suggestions for improvements, constructive criticism, and active learning from mistakes (rather than simply apportioning blame) help strengthen integrity, but our research and practise shows it has a significantly multiplying effect on employee motivation, innovation and reduced job-related stress. It comes down to simple, common sense behaviours, but Internal Comms professionals have a key role to play in highlighting what they are, and working closely with HR or OD to embed them in practise.

Juliette Alban-Metcalfe is Chief Executive of Real World Group

Suggested further reading:

Image courtesy of flicker user Chris Evans

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