Editor’s note: As we celebrate Public Relations Ethics Month this September, PRSA invited members of the Board of Ethics & Professional Standards (BEPS) to offer their views and thoughts on the ethical topics affecting the PR profession. Follow the blog series on PRSAY and join the national social media discussion by using the hashtag #PREthics. For a full list of Ethics Month activities visit the 2015 Ethics Month section of the PRSA site.
Memo to the CEO: Those Who Need Ethics Training the Most, and When They Need It May Surprise You
During most of my public relations professional life I’ve been engaged in the understanding, teaching, interpretation and enforcement of ethical practices at the CEO level. For 22 years I was a member of the Public Relations Society of America’s National Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). The Board’s purpose is to educate, inspire, motivate and demonstrate appropriate ethical behavior and explore ethical dilemmas. I remain active, working with BEPS as its first emeritus member.
BEPS main focus is on practitioner problems and counsel, especially targeting public relations students and younger practitioners. And while there is considerable interest by students and younger practitioners, my experience has driven me to recommend an additional ethics education approach that turns out to be much more challenging.
Ethics cases have very similar patterns involving failed leadership behavior and inadequate or ineffective organizational response.
- Ethical problems in organizations generally start at or near the top. When ethical problems start somewhere else, questionable and bad decisions are initially endorsed or alibied, but more frequently covered up by top management through silence, blame shifting, flat out denial or failing to challenge or seriously work to eliminate the bad actors and their behavior.
- Ethics violations and problems are rarely the fault of junior people. It is often the junior people who first raise the alarm but get squelched by their “more seasoned” colleagues who caution against rocking the boat.
- It’s pretty much smart people who create or permit ethical problems.
- Silence is the greatest promoter and protector of unethical behavior.
- Senior level unethical behaviors or intentions are frequently witnessed and assisted by PR practitioners.
- Serious business problems generally never start in the mailroom despite what management may say at first.
Working, as I have, across an age perspective beginning at around mid-to-late teenager status to extremely senior, highly educated and successful leaders, has taught me two very powerful truths, which are the major lessons of this blog:
- The highest levels of ethical clarity in a person’s life seem to occur between the mid-teen ages thru age 26 or so. This seems to be a time when an individual knows everything better than anybody else, including their parents. The world seems to be largely black-and-white. Parents get consigned to the NPR zone (not presently relevant) around age 15 by girls and 17 by boys. . . Boys are always slower.
- It is really between the ages of 30 to 49 — that time when one’s career begins to move ahead, even take off — that we begin moving through a period of perilous incremental de-ethicization. That is, regularly making small compromises to facilitate the personal advancement process. It seems as though one’s career progress requires that many prior clear and sharp decisions made and limits set are now gently, minutely and continuously modified.
The lesson for me has been that the time for extraordinary re-emphasis and re-clarification of ethical behavior, principles and ideals is in that midlife career acceleration range.
Top leaders need to rethink and redirect organizational ethical emphasis to better preserve and protect the ethical sensitivities of those up-and-comers in career acceleration mode to detect and prevent the corrosive, incremental de-ethicization that occurs during this time period.
Preserving the ethical bearings of mid-level and advancing managers and supervisors is among the biggest challenges to leadership. It is by far among the most important tasks of leadership, identifying ethical successors.
The proof lies in repeated patterns of failed leadership behavior. These patterns are what make ethics cases so interesting. Here’s the typical internal behavior response pattern in even the best organization when ethical infractions and their victims come to light:
- Key employees of ethically challenged companies seem astounded that their company got in so much trouble.
- That, in some cases, there were victims.
- Even those who worked in the affected divisions seemed genuinely shocked and embarrassed that they or those they knew failed to come forward.
- Even after publishing and circulating the company’s official admission the employee reaction is, “Okay, that’s what the government or the victims or the attorneys made us say. What’s the real story?” In other words, “This can’t be true . . . not where I work.”
- One of the most toxic circumstances is that senior level bystanders and staff function like PR are blind to what’s going on, generally believing that in their own words, “It can’t happen here,” even if it’s going on in the next cubical.
- A supervisor admits, “We were so with the program that we failed to anticipate that something could go wrong.” “When there were problems we plowed ahead anyway and repaired the damage on the fly.” “Those who did ask tough questions or make waves wound up in company political hell.”
There needs to be a much greater emphasis on detecting, deterring and preventing the constant, relentless incremental and corrosive de-ethicization threats to the ethics and integrity of mid-career, up-and-coming managers and leaders.
James Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; BEPS Member Emeritus is among the most widely known crisis public relations practitioners and senior executive coaches in North America. His PRSA and IABC webinars, teleconferences and in-person programs have been attended by thousands of practitioners over the last 25 years. “Corporate Legal Times” lists him as one of the top 28 crisis consultants. Follow him on twitter @jimlukaszewski.