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How Ethics and Diversity Are Inextricably Linked

How Companies Can Bridge the Gap Between Ethics and Diversity

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This past Wednesday, October 21, was Global Ethics Day, an annual celebration of the role of ethics in a globalized world. In my role as director of Diversity & Inclusion at IMA (Institute of Management Accountants), I spent the day reflecting on how diversity and inclusion and ethics are inextricably linked. Aly Colón, the Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, rather poetically writes, “ethics serves as the soil in which the seed of diversity must be planted.”

Therefore, it may not be sufficient to simply address diversity in a vacuum if an organization does not have a healthy ethical “soil.” Indeed, if you plant seeds into poisoned soil, anything that grows will soon wither and die. To help me work out how companies can bridge the gap between ethics and diversity, I spoke with two experts on the subject: Deborah Michalowski, the Chair of IMA’s Committee on Ethics, and Nicole Gonzalez Cumberbatch, a member of IMA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

Linda Devonish-Mills: Most companies have an ethics program that is distinct from its diversity and inclusion program. How can leaders bridge the gap between the two to further enhance their organization’s social and corporate responsibilities?

Deborah C. Michalowski: Most large organizations have an ethics program and a diversity and inclusion program, while small organizations usually manage ethics, diversity, and inclusion under their human resources department/role. In the large organization, these programs are mostly separate while in the small organization, they tend to be intertwined.

Looking at the commonalities between the two programs, they both impact culture and are both mostly behavior based rather than transaction based. To bridge the gap between ethics and D&I, you must first formalize goals that further the organization’s social and corporate responsibilities. Some suggested goals can be built around D&I initiatives, such as follows.

  1. Emphasize the business case for diversity and inclusion.
  2. Recognize bias.
  3. Practice inclusive leadership.
  4. Provide sponsorship programs.
  5. Hold leaders accountable.

Once the goals are determined, an ethics support line can be set up to allow employees to address any issues anonymously. If your organization is global, you may find that the ethics support line will not be used by some geos that find anonymous reporting to be against their cultural values. In those cases, use other means to resolve D&I or ethics issues, such as investigations or open discussion on ethics and D&I.             

Another way to bridge the gap is to combine ethics trainings with D&I trainings and report out communications regarding both. In many ways, ethics and D&I support each other so it is good to combine them in trainings and communications.

LM: Ethics and diversity issues are often harder to spot than, say, operational issues. If there is a problem in the supply chain, it will have immediate impacts. Ethics and diversity issues are more subtle but have the same potential to negatively impact an organization. What frameworks or tools can leaders use to identify and resolve these issues early?

DM: Behavioral issues are harder to document than transactional issues. Using the 5 W’s as a tool to document the ethics and diversity issues with factual information will help to frame the issue in a way to make a determination on how to address.

Let’s use an inclusive workplace issue as an example of how to use the 5 W’s.

A company has a “practice inclusive leadership” goal but was having an inclusive issue during a meeting where everyone was given an opportunity to speak. The meeting had an “in-crowd” or a group of allies who share commonalities, such as gender, personal interests, or job security. The in-crowd often takes up more space in the room, supports the same ideas, and speaks up inordinately, drowning out differing viewpoints. The leader of the meeting had the job to step in when strong personalities over-reach, tamp down offenders, and actively bring all voices into the conversation. In this example, a minority member of the meeting could not share her idea, which she later shared with her manager.

What happened? This is the first question to gather the facts. The minority member could not share their idea in the meeting and the leader of the meeting didn’t pick up the body language that the minority member had something to share.

Why did this happen? The meeting structure did not have clear ground rules to provide an opportunity to allow all to share. It is the leader’s responsibility to make sure ground rules are in place and they must exercise them during the meeting.

Who were involved? The leader should have watched for dominators and interrupters. If someone tries to control the dialogue, interject, and redirect the conversation back to the broader group.

When did it happen? Did the time of the meeting contribute to the meeting behaviors? Meetings immediately after lunch or the last meeting of the day can have some members not fully engaged.

Where did it happen? Was the meeting virtual or in person. It is easier to pick up body language in in-person meetings, but this can be attained in a virtual meeting if the members all use their video cameras.

The final and sixth “W” is “how”. How can we address this issue? Training on inclusive meetings for all the meeting members would be the best way to address this issue. The leader’s manager could also share tactics to maintain an inclusive meeting. Everyone should be welcome to participate in the meeting.

Other tools are proactive measures:

  1. Planning and implementation of the D&I plan
  2. Conflict resolution skills and bias training
  3. Communication training
  4. Ethics and integrity training

LM: Measuring ethics and diversity can be a grey area. For example, how does one determine whether or not their company is objectively more ethical than the prior period? How would you suggest organizations measure and manage these initiatives?

DM: Measuring can be done with tools such as indicators, investigations and 5 W’s plus other conflict resolution tools. Then you would measure the effectiveness of the corporate goals, code of conduct, policies, and procedures. Ethics programs often use these tools to measure operations, but they can also be used to measure a mature diversity and inclusion program. As with any policy or procedure, you need to exercise the D&I program for a quarter or year before starting to measure the data. Like the organization, the ethics and D&I programs should develop three to four goals to frame the ideal ethical, diverse, and inclusive culture/environment. From this point, ensure that the code of conduct, policies and procedures do not conflict with the goals while adding elements to each, as needed, to reinforce the goals.

Follow the updated corporate guidelines with a training on the new organization goals and any changes to the code of conduct, policies, and procedures, breaking into separate trainings, if necessary, to cover all the updates. Provide a reinforcement measure that recognizes good behavior and detailing why the recognition was given. As they say, using a carrot (recognition) can often be more effective than using the stick (discipline).

Send communications out on a regular cadence (monthly or quarterly) to give an update on the health (good news recognition with bad news cases) of the ethics and diversity & inclusion programs, keeping anonymity where applicable. The format of the communication could be a health scorecard or a message with good and bad cases.                                                

LM: Another complication with diversity and ethics programs is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each company has their own culture, business objectives, and mode of operation, which will contribute to how to handle ethics and diversity initiatives. How can businesses create or enhance their ethics and diversity programs for their own unique needs?

Nicole Gonzalez Cumberbatch: D&I encompasses many different areas. Therefore, it’s important that the drive for diversity & inclusion comes from the top. Upper management must first communicate with their teams to determine any underlying issues within the organization. It is a key factor in identifying how a specific company should move forward and create a plan. And once upper management has established issues in relation to ethics and D&I, and built a solid foundation based on differences and not similarities, senior leaders should participate in and encourage engagement in those initiatives for success of the D&I programs. This support can cultivate commitment, motivate employees, and fuel innovation.

LM: Many people are unsure how to engage when conversations arise about important diversity, equity and inclusion policies at work. How can employees be an ally in the corporate world?

NC: We are definitely living in very unusual, and stressful times. However, the beauty of technology has allowed us to continue to connect with our co-workers despite not being able to work together in the office. But D&I cannot grow when it’s an afterthought or minor initiative. Therefore, you can continue to engage in conversations about the importance of D&I policies by setting aside time for those conversations through discussion “video” sessions. Allowing employees, a forum for voicing D&I concerns, creating actionable items, and committing collectively to resolving those obstacles can generate cohesion because it allows the employees to work together toward a common goal.

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