How can leaders stick to their ethics and values in hard times?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 13 January, 2022 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

Like other aspects of health and safety, ethics and values vary tremendously across leaders, settings, workplace culture, and individual incidents, according to Curtin University.

Most (if not all) leaders would very much prefer to be both ethical and effective in their leadership, said Jacqueline Boaks, lecturer in the School of Management at Curtin Business School.

“Over many years now of teaching ethics to mid-career leaders and executives I have found that almost all care deeply about ethics,” she said.

“What leaders (and the rest of us) sometimes lack are the skills and abilities to confidently act towards ethics and values – how to communicate them to others and implement or act on them in a way that they can feel confident about and believe they will have a decent chance of success.”

Often leaders are also looking for the confidence to see that they may be supported in those ethical decisions,” said Boaks, who recently spoke at the Australian Institute of Health & Safety (WA Branch) Perth Safety Symposium.

An extra challenge leaders often face is in dealing with new and unprecedented situations.

“Leadership is almost by definition required when the status quo has changed and the standard rules or processed are no longer working,” she said.

“This often means taking ethical considerations and not just relying on the inherited rules and systems.”

Boaks said specific ethical challenges and issues for leaders vary across contexts but there are common themes, such as how to speak up about sacrificing safety or employee wellbeing for perceived efficiency or productivity

“Importantly we find the barriers to speaking up about ethics challenging situations are often the same. In fact these are remarkably uniform across job roles, leave of seniority, and industries” said Boaks, who noted these barriers include:

  • ethical issues taking us by surprise
  • not being sure how to speak up when we want to
  • fearing we are alone in wanting to speak up
  • worrying about what the consequences will be if we do speak up (for example will we lose our job, will we isolate ourselves from colleagues, will we lose standing in the eyes of our boss)
  • worrying that we will be seen as a complainer, and
  • the perception that ‘everybody else in the industry does it this way’ or that profitability requires it ‘just this once’.

“In addition to these barriers, leaders like the rest of us face the challenge that we are often out of practice in dealing with ethically challenging situations,” said Boaks.

“Unlike the rest of us, leaders often have to make these decisions and act on them quickly and in public.”

There are a number of important implications for OHS professionals, according to Boaks, who said ethics and ethical decisions factor into workplace wellbeing.

“The barriers above can often be a serious barrier to raising ethical issues – for example, if they are seen as in conflict with profitability, as increasing costs, or require OHS professionals to raise more ethical issues than other employees do,” said Boaks.

It is important to acknowledge that ethics matters to most people, she said: “it is very common and not surprising that we would face ethical challenges at work given the increasingly complex work lives we all lead.

“Overall I believe that identifying, thinking about, and responding to ethical issues is a skill – ones that we can get better at with practice, the help of others, and confidence.”

“It’s important to be clear about or own values and our purpose and purpose seems very important for OHS professionals,” said Boaks.

For OHS professionals, this purpose is likely to include the safety, health and psychological wellbeing of others in the workplace and the values they act on will flow from that.

At a high level, she said this purpose informs what our values are – for example, impartiality in assessing risk, or courage in raising the issue with those who can make a change – and it can be powerfully motivating to draw on that.

As well as a focus on purpose, Boaks said it is important to be clear about what kinds of values are being discussed when we talk about values with others and consider them for ourselves.

Not all ‘values’ are ethical values and not all values are equally important at all times, and Boaks said some values will be pragmatic, prudential values (such as efficiency or innovation) and others will be ethical (such as safety and wellbeing).

“Some of those ethical values are things we value for their own sake (safety and wellbeing), while others are instrumental values that let us pursue those end values (such as the courage to raise issues and avoid harm to others),” she said.

“On top of that, I would emphasise that while ethics matters to us and ethical issues are common, that does not mean that we automatically know how to raise them.

“Instead, raising ethical issues in way that allows open discussion and a successful outcome is a skill that takes practice. It’s helpful to give ourselves permission to see acting on ethics this way.

“So my main advice would be to practice taking steps to improve ethics and values in your organisation, think deeply about your values and what is consistent with them, and know you are not alone.

“Build a network of those that can help and support you and use that to normalise talking about ethical issues and use those discussions to ask others where they are coming from and what values are important to them.”

Boaks said all of this is very useful for when it comes time to the ‘real’ ethical discussions you want to have, and also sets a culture where talking about ethical issues and values is normal and less stressful, which makes it easier to do more of in future.