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YOU ARE WHERE YOU WORK: How Employees Are Leading an Ethical Revolution in the Workplace

We are at a moment when we clearly need companies to lead the way on integrity, because it’s the right thing to do and makes sense from a business standpoint for them to do so.

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By Rob Chesnut
There is no shield against the damage a lack of integrity can inflict on a business. And the problem is, silence about integrity creates ambiguities about right and wrong that make everyone in an organization a little uncertain, a little nervous. Regrettably, a minority of people will exploit that uncomfortable silence to rationalize selfish behavior. And so the lack of specificity about the values an organization expects its employees and managers to model is one reason why we have so many ethical crises erupting.

It’s clear to me that pressure on companies to act ethically is bubbling up from inside their own ranks. Many employees are no longer content to just cash their paychecks—they want to understand the lines their employers will and will not cross. Some employees, and particularly millennials, see their employer as inseparable from their own identity. When their company makes a mistake or a controversial decision, it becomes public, shared on social media, and visible for their friends to question them about. If evidence emerges that the company is spewing huge amounts of carbon into the air or exploiting child labor overseas, employees will demand answers, and they may hold a walkout or even quit if they don’t like what they hear. And their actions may inspire or amplify consumer boycotts or prompt customers to take their business elsewhere.

In 2018, more than 600 employees of Salesforce signed a petition asking the company to end its contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in protest over the Trump administration and the CBP’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.4 By June 2019, employees of the online marketplace Wayfair staged a walkout to protest the company’s sale of beds and home goods to a contractor who was sending them to a facility in Texas designed to house detained migrant children.5 Google employees, meanwhile, have organized several public demonstrations to protest executives receiving large severance packages after being accused of sexual harassment. They’ve also spoken out against Google’s use of confidential, mandatory arbitration.6 The press has uncovered a “private” Facebook group where 18,000-strong Amazon employees unhappy with their pay and workload routinely air their complaints.7

Smart leaders in many fields, including tech, are seeing these public protests by employees and realizing it’s important for company leaders to think more deeply about ethics and integrity and what their companies stand for. For example, LinkedIn cofounder and now venture capitalist Reid Hoffman and I met when I was working at eBay and he was COO at PayPal. You won’t find a more vocal tech advocate than Reid, but he and I spoke recently about narcissistic CEOs fueling the techlash with their “I’ll worry about ethics later” attitude. Instead, he says, “Integrity is a mantle that companies need to take up. People are yearning for companies to take on a broader purpose than just short-term profit.”

In April 2019, the Wall Street Journal wrote a story about how the outdoor products company Patagonia had disallowed customization of its vests with the logos of corporate customers who are not “mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet.”8 The popular fleece vests had become a Wall Street fashion staple in recent years. The tone of the story was wry, but the idea of a company literally “disqualifying” customers anxious to purchase their products or service over a fundamental values and integrity issue once would have seemed radical, but we’re seeing more and more companies do just that. It’s grounded in a desire to project to customers and employees that a brand is aligned with its most aspirational values even at the expense of revenues and profits.

Recently, 181 members of Business Roundtable, all CEOs of the nation’s largest companies, took a courageous step in asserting that companies must embrace a more stakeholder-oriented corporate governance posture rather than simply making shareholder return their sole focus. The BRT drew fire from some investor groups, but a wide variety of other organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, endorsed its position. The fact that 181 of the top CEOs in the country could agree on such a dramatic departure from the historic purpose of corporations is a sign of how ready the world is for companies and to step up to the challenge.9

And despite the frustration and the mistakes many companies have made, we know that employees want to be proud of where they work; they yearn to be what Richard Edelman calls “partners in change” with their employers.

Paul Sallaberry, a venture capitalist who previously held senior executive positions at Oracle and Veritas, agrees and describes this central conflict of integrity I the workplace: “I see that employees really associate themselves with their companies today. When they’re deciding where they want to work, they’re asking ‘Who am I?’ As a company, when you display honesty and integrity, you’ll attract people who want that. When you make bad habits standard operating procedure, it will come back and kill you.”

Whatever your role in a company, whether it’s the CEO, the owner, an executive team member, a mid-level manager, or an individual contributor, it behooves you to think about the environment you want to live in and work to make it happen. Here are five ways to be intentional about integrity in the workplace:
• Think of yourself as the CEO of your own reputation and that of any teams you manage, and then make sure your own actions match up to that challenge.
• Know your current ethics policy if your company has one and think about whether it goes far enough based on what you see going on around you.
• Don’t shrug off ethical violations because they don’t seem to involve you. As an employee, your company’s brand and reputation extend to you. You may end up answering for a problem you could have helped prevent.
• Invest energy in identifying rules or policies that would improve the integrity of your workplace. If you don’t have a code of business ethics, perhaps you can lobby human resources to develop one. Too intimidating? Send a note to the CEO or general counsel about any ethical or integrity dilemmas that you encounter for which you feel the company would benefit from more specific guidance.
• Seek out integrity. When you decide to make a career move, probing a potential new employer about how the company’s leadership prioritizes and nurtures integrity might help you find a job in a company more aligned with your values.

We are at a moment when we clearly need companies to lead the way on integrity, because it’s the right thing to do and makes sense from a business standpoint for them to do so. But this path to integrity requires commitment, focus, and attention from everybody.
I’d like every person to think of themselves as an ethics officer, a guardian of their employer’s brand. We are not perfect, we all know we are not perfect, and we treat integrity as a journey where we may stumble, not as an action item to cross off our to-do list. When we get this right, we remove obstacles, unlock a company’s potential, and tap employees’ best skills and energy to drive business with purpose and values. Ultimately, profits are essential; but forming trusting and solid partnerships with employees and others is the only path to long-term success.

CREDIT: Adapted from Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution by Rob Chesnut (St. Martin’s Press, July 28, 2020)

Rob Chesnut was most recently the Chief Ethics Officer of Airbnb, Inc. and is now consulting on ethics issues with Airbnb, eBay, Chegg, and others. He is the author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution (St Martin’s Press).

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