What Employees See – Employees Do!

Posted by Kristin Arnold on February 10, 2014

A question I am asked quite often by entrepreneurs is, “How do I ensure that new employees and their managers will continue the customer-focused, ethical culture on which the organization was founded?”

This is a great question and one that many leaders ponder. If you are a business owner and are not thinking about this, you should be. The good news is — it is not all that complicated.

The answer lies in research that was done many years ago and known as “Social Cognitive Theory” (SCT). Basically SCT says that people learn by watching what others do. They do not behave according to what is verbally communicated, written on posters, in policies or annual reports.

To help you understand this, think of a time as a teenager when you said “I’m never going to be like my mother (or father).” Then you grew up, had kids of your own and ended up doing (and saying) the exact same things under the same circumstances.

Most people realize that our values are formed in the first five years of our life. I have also determined from my own informal studies, that most people’s business ethics are formed in the first five years of their career.

SCT is based on the idea that people learn by watching how others react and respond, and that our thought processes are central to understanding behaviour. Therefore, it stands to reason that it is the role models employees observe early in their working lives that will be crucial to determining how an employee will behave when faced with similar situations. Values determine thought and thought determines behaviour.

This is also the reason why it is so important for every organization to have an established mentoring program, especially for employees identified as “High-Potential”. Many successful organizations incorporate a Business Conduct Guidelines session into their new employee orientation programs.

Some organizations even get the employee to sign off that they have not only read, but also understand and agree to abide by those practices. The employee also agrees that any violation of those ethics could result in dismissal with cause.

Many companies go to the effort of creating a vision and a set of values that are used in marketing and social media; but unfortunately, the day-to-day culture is not necessarily to comply. Rather, the practice becomes ’don’t get caught’. This disconnect creates a corporate culture in which there is cognitive dissonance within the ranks, and people lose what I call corporate psychic energy. Once this energy is lost, morale starts to decrease and good people who feel that the code of conduct is just a poster on the wall become disillusioned or cynical and will often leave.

The solution is to create and articulate an appropriate code of conduct that is in alignment with the corporate values to which all staff and management must adhere. It should also be an integral part of the new employee orientation program. Here are some definitions to assist with this initiative:

  • Code of Conduct: corporate guidelines issued as policy requirements that regulate acceptable and unacceptable business behaviour.
  • Corporate Culture: the shared values and basic beliefs which determine the moral climate of an organization.
  • Conflict of Interest: occurs when an employee or manager places his or her own self-interests above those of the organization which creates ’divided loyalties’ in their decision making.

Making compliance to the ethics each individual’s responsibility will ensure the long-term viability of the organizational culture. Some company’s even require that each manager demonstrate awareness by having them make a presentation to staff on a regular basis.

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