How to implement a set of ethical principles
In the first post about preventing conflict in the workplace, I talked about implementing a code of conduct. As with a code of conduct, the implementation of set of ethical principles is almost more important than what the principles say. If your organizations’ code of ethics is never discussed, and nobody knows what it says, it will be worse than useless – it can cause employees to devalue the organization and, in turn, feel devalued.
Our individual ethical principles
If a code of conduct guides your employees’ everyday interactions, a set of ethical principles guides their decision-making and behavior. Every human being has a sense of ethical duty that informs their thinking and behavior. That ethical sense becomes most useful when it is made conscious and consistent. If we are consciously aware of our ethical principles, we are more likely to abide by them, even if they come into conflict with our immediate self-interest. Having ethical principles that are consistent with each other – that is, that do not conflict with each other – minimizes psychic discomfort and helps us maintain healthy, fulfilling relationships. I use the same ethical principles in my personal and professional life – I call them “operating principles” when I’m referring to my business, Human Systems.
I strongly encourage everybody to develop a set of personal ethical principles. The best principles are firm, but not inflexible; they can change over time as we learn and grow. I adjust mine periodically, maybe once a year, based on my experiences of times when I encountered a situation that didn’t seem to be fully covered by my principles. If you are interested in working on your own principles, you can try the tool I developed, Hard Interior/Soft Exterior, which guides you through the process of developing healthy personal boundaries while maintaining empathy and connectedness.
Implementing a set of ethical principles
If you work in a human services profession, you probably have a set of professional ethical principles, which could be used or adapted for your organization. As mentioned before, the important part is the implementation of the ethical principles, which must include a common understanding of the principles as well as consistent application. An organization could accomplish this by creating an expectation that a portion of every supervision session is dedicated to discussing any ethical principles that come into play in the supervisee’s work. In addition, monthly 90-minute ethical case studies could be planned for staff to present a current ethical issue and receive feedback.
Creating safe spaces
It can be hard to create an organizational culture that allows for the effective implementation of a set of ethical principles, because discussions about ethics can make people feel uncomfortable. Nobody wants to feel like they have done something wrong (or worse, irrevocable), so it’s important to create a safe, non-judgmental space for ethics-related conversations. When employees realize that they will not be punished or shamed for talking about their ethical missteps (because we all mess up sometimes), they will be more open to talking about ethical principles and how they are applied. When everybody feels comfortable talking about how ethics factor into their work, it will translate into less burnout, less turnover, a more sustainable organization, and better client outcomes.