By Melissa Jezior
I recently read a quote attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower that is standing the test of time.
The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.
I agree. Without a foundation of integrity, an organization is at risk. Integrity is the cornerstone of how employees make decisions, act and react in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. When a company’s integrity is in question, the negative impacts on performance, financials, customer retention and employee morale can be devastating and ruinous.
I’m guessing that President Eisenhower would be as disappointed as I was to hear the findings of new research on the state of integrity. Our latest national poll reveals that the majority of working Americans believe that integrity is sharply declining—across the country, in government and in corporate America.
For certain, part of the issue is that any misstep—big or small—is magnified and can spread across the globe in minutes thanks to technology, social media and the 24×7 news cycle.
A company may or may not have a deep integrity problem, but a single employee mistake can create the perception—rightly or wrongly—of a systemic corporate integrity problem. Cases in point—viral videos of the mistreatment of customers by employees at United Airlines and Starbucks. Single incidents have these companies mired in rebuilding trust and confidence of their stakeholders including customers, regulators, investors and the public at large.
But in other cases, there may indeed be deep integrity issues confronting organizations that go beyond a headline grabbing incident. The continued drip, drip, drip of negative revelations about less than honorable actions of employees and leaders at companies like Wells Fargo and Uber leaves the impression that there is a complete integrity breakdown at all levels of the organization.
Both Wells Fargo and Uber are running multi-million dollar advertising campaigns aimed at addressing their own integrity implosions and earning back trust. The stakes couldn’t be higher for both companies.
Our integrity polling also revealed interesting findings that can help leaders within organizations take one step now to get ahead of the integrity implosion before you become the next headline.
The polling revealed that:
The overwhelming majority of Americans believe corporations and executive leadership might do something unethical. Some 87 percent say that corporations might do something unethical while nearly three-fourths (74 percent) say executive leadership might do something ethically questionable.
Most people witness unethical behavior at work, but few report it. Nearly half (48 percent) of the American workforce has seen someone do something unethical at work. Yet, only 28 percent have reported unethical behaviors at their workplace.
American workers say that some of the reasons they do not report unethical behavior in the workplace is because they don't know what to do or are scared of how doing so might impact them.
This means that employees are aware of integrity issues but aren’t doing anything about it. When that happens, a problem can fester and grow larger.
Given these findings, what is the one thing every leader in every organization can do today to get in front of the integrity implosion?
Have a conversation with employees today about integrity.
Engage in a dialogue about what integrity means in your organization, the consequences for the company and individuals when there is “bad behavior,” the responsibility to report unethical behavior so that issues can be addressed, and how to report behavior without fear of retribution.
Certainly, engaging in a dialogue is just a starting point. But, it will begin to orient employees to thinking about integrity and their role. The next step is to continue the conversation, listen to employee feedback and take actions as needed. Maybe there is a need for a better ethics reporting system. Or maybe policy changes (like sales goals) need modification so employees aren’t tempted to take unethical actions.
Ultimately, the larger goal is to ensure that employees at all levels of a company understand and embrace the company’s core values, and are acting with integrity every minute they are at work. Organizations with employees that live their values and act with integrity are the ones that will consistently deliver on its mission and goals.
Certainly, there is much more companies can do to get ahead of the integrity implosion—from conducting culture assessments, hiring employees aligned with your values, and holding leaders accountable.
But today, we can all take a first step. Share President Eisenhower’s quote with your team and start the integrity conversation.