Talking about ethics: A strong strategy is required

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Thanks to social media, corporate ethics—and employees’ actions—are under scrutiny as never before. But even without such scrutiny, I believe that most companies want their employees to do the right thing. The problem is to make sure that there’s agreement throughout the company on what constitutes that “right thing.” Thus, ensuring ethical operations is a continuing challenge for today’s hospitality managers.

To address this issue, Cornell Professor Judi Brownell surveyed 433 hotel managers to learn what they’ve done to promote employees’ ethical behavior. The survey revealed many tactics, including putting ethical expectations in employee handbooks, using classroom and online training, and promulgating company policy and core values.

“One of the real challenges is that today’s employees have a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, which makes it difficult to establish common ground with regard to ethical perspectives,” explained Brownell. “As a result, one of the strongest ways to promote an ethical operation is to engage in conversations with individual employees.”


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Brownell highlights the approach of discussing what needs to be done as a strong tactic, because this gives managers repeated chances to reinforce a company’s ethical standards. She sees three critical times when specific discussions can take place. Those opportunities occur during the selection interview and employee orientation; through continuous performance dialogues; and by paying attention to the personal interactions and management practices that communicate expectations.

Brownell has developed a framework intended to assist managers and employees to discuss ethical issues, based on a series of questions that help managers give examples of the kinds of engagement that are desirable. These examples are intended to foster discussion and provide insights into an employee’s ethical awareness and perspectives. The discussion framework is available at no charge in a report from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research, “Ethics from the Bottom Up.” 

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