Successful Ethics Programs

When is an ethics program successful? An ethics program is successful when employees at all levels view the ethics program as a benefit to the organization, and when they internalize the messages such that ethical conduct becomes an integral part of their workplace behavior.

As discussed in a 2008 Ethical Advocate blog post, developing a superb organizational culture has many components with three of the most important being: setting the tone at the top, having an ethics or compliance program that is enforced, and providing ongoing communications about ethics.

Effective communication continues to be a major contributor to an organization’s ethical culture and to the success of its ethics program. Effective communication is ongoing. It uses a variety of supporting mechanisms, incorporates face-to-face dialogue, not just top-down messaging, and incorporates follow-through.

In contrast, organizations that primarily impose their codes of ethics top-down with an emphasis on disciplinary procedures rather than by offering training and support mechanisms may negatively affect the ethical culture. (Sparrow, 2009)

Effective communication includes messages of support from the top. Such messages are even more effective when delivered in person or via Skype or video link, because both tone of voice and body language convey meaning in a way that email messages or words on paper do not. Which is not to say that email updates, newsletter articles, and other supporting messages are not important; they are.

Effective communication of ethics policies and practices also includes development and regular, typically annual, dissemination of a code of conduct – with follow-up to ensure recipients understand why they received the document and why it is important.

Effective communication includes ongoing training – helping leaders, managers, and employees to learn about common ethical issues, identify causes of unethical behavior, learn to solve ethical dilemmas, learn about ethics hotlines and other whistle-blowing criteria and risks, and learning about the code of ethics. (Carroll and Buchholtz, 2012)

Not least, the observed and perceived behavior of leaders, managers, and colleagues sets the tone and communicates the true level of support for ethical behavior. Does the leadership response to ethical lapses demonstrate that the code of ethics applies to everyone equally? Is “bending the rules” discouraged? Do leaders share and live their values? Leaders, managers, and colleagues who demonstrate ethical behavior strongly influence the behavior of all others.

Contact us today to discuss how Ethical Advocate can help your organization’s ethics team develop or improve ethics programs and communications.


Carroll, Archie B. and Ann K. Buchholtz. Business & Society: Ethics, Sustainability, and Stakeholder Management, Eighth ed., 2012. Chapter 8 Personal and Organizational Ethics [PowerPoint presentation].

Sparrow, Paul. Handbook of International Human Resource Management: Integrating People, Process, and Context, 2009.