How to create a culture of compliance and ethics in the workplace

Debbie Wheeler, Regional Compliance Director, Tenet Florida

Do the right thing. This may seem like a simple task, but there are many circumstances in the workplace that challenge employees’ ability to act within their organization’s core mission and values. With a strong ethics program, employees can better grasp expectations and understand their individual role in making the culture of compliance thrive within the organization as a whole.

“The law is the minimum standard,” says Debbie Wheeler, regional compliance director, Tenet Florida. “To help employees make the right decisions that properly reflect the organization, employers need to take a step further by developing, communicating and enforcing clear standards of conduct.”

Wheeler discusses with Smart Business why ethics in the workplace is critical, and offers suggestions for building a strong employer-driven compliance program.

What are the benefits of managing ethics in the workplace?

A strong ethics program aligns the organization and its employees. It provides a solid foundation from which an organization can build a consistent culture of ethical decision-making, transparency and accountability. I always say that the law is the minimum standard; what goes beyond that in our daily decision-making of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ is guided by integrity and ethics. Employers can play an important role in helping employees make more ethical decisions in the workplace by routinely communicating and enforcing a standard of conduct. This serves as a guide for employees to understand their organization’s specific expectations for communication, decision-making and actions in their work. When employees feel that their own standards and values align with their employers, they are generally more positive about their work and even more productive.

What is a code of conduct and why is it important?

A code of conduct can be viewed as a guide or reference for employees, as it provides a resource to influence ethical decision-making and behavior. The code of conduct also reaffirms the values of the organization, which often include integrity, transparency, honesty and respect. For example, the code may communicate that employees are expected to: make decisions that support the organization’s values; be responsible for their decisions and doing the right thing; raise issues that are inconsistent with their workplace values; seek appropriate help when the right decision is not clear; and have the tools to effectively solve problems.

It’s important to have a code or standard of conduct, but it’s even more important to enforce it and offer consistent support and resources for employees who may need help with the ethical decision-making process. At Tenet, our Standards of Conduct provide employees with an Ethical Decisions Guide. The guide is a step-by-step algorithm that can assist individuals with making decisions when the right one is not obvious or clear. In addition, Tenet has created the culture of open communication and trust, where employees understand how to go through the proper channels to discuss and report their concerns. One of these channels is the Ethics Action Line (EAL), which is available 24 hours a day. Employees know that they can call this line and anonymously talk to a qualified professional who can help address their problems and offer a suggested process to reach a resolution. Employees are also encouraged to go to their supervisors and express ethical issues without fear of retaliation. We have taken every effort to open communication within all organizational levels while ensuring that employees feel protected. I recommend that organizations promote their code of conduct and ethics program by fostering a high level of trust between employees, management and administration.

What does a highly ethical organization look like?

A highly ethical organization sends out a clear and consistent message of its expectations; employees are aware of their standard or code of conduct and put it into practice each and every day in their work. It’s an organization where everyone understands the culture of transparency and full disclosure. Because of this, employees feel comfortable about speaking up when they perceive a potential ethical dilemma personally, or see a potential problem within the organization. When the entire work force is acting based on shared values and standards, the organization has a more influential force to reach its goals.

What are some ways to train people about an ethics program and ethics in the workplace?

It’s important for every employee to be trained on the organization’s standard or code of conduct at the start of and routinely throughout their employment. I recommend requiring specific ethics training for every new employee upon hire and at least annually thereafter for review. In my experience, it is beneficial for employees to hear real-life examples of ethical dilemmas as well as their resolutions. These examples give employees an opportunity to apply the standards of conduct to real situations and it creates an applied learning experience that will be remembered.

Organizations should also consider designating a qualified point person who is responsible for managing and emphasizing ethics in the workplace, such as a compliance officer. This person must display sound ethical judgment and character as the role model for the organization. He or she should also engage employees and earn their trust in order to influence the entire organization’s culture of compliance. This person is the advocate and resource for all employees as they strive each day to ‘do the right thing.’

Debbie Wheeler is the regional compliance director of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, Florida region.