How to Build and Sustain an Ethical Culture in Public Safety

July 19, 2019 Emily Miner and Jim Walton

Cultivating a healthy speak-up culture is essential for any organization, including those in public safety, as we recently discussed in our article in the July 2019 issue of HR News.

Ethical workplace cultures offer several benefits, including mitigating reputation risks by encouraging the reporting of misconduct or unethical behavior, and by encouraging growth through sharing ideas.

When employees don’t feel comfortable questioning decisions or raising alarms, or when business pressures take precedence over doing what is right, the consequences for the organization can be dire. Think Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Harvey Weinstein and Deepwater Horizon, to name but a few.

So how can public safety organizations build and sustain an ethical speak-up culture?

The good news is most of what is needed to cultivate a basic speak-up culture already exists. Most who go into public safety are drawn by a desire to protect and help people, and public safety organizations have a straightforward purpose that’s easy to support.

But how to make it all work? There are three key general steps, we believe.

Start with purpose and values. When organizations can express and truly shape themselves around a meaningful purpose, they are more likely to bring people together over a shared cause that’s worth protecting. Organizational values provide people with a common language to compel employees to speak out. LRN's research finds employees in values-based organizations are more than three times as likely to call out and report misconduct as those in autocratic ones.

Lead by example. Formal leaders--those whose titles confer specific leadership and decision-making authority--hold an outsized influence over an organization’s culture. They set the tone and handle the responsibility of forming and modeling the right behaviors. Nurturing a speak-up culture involves demonstrating humility by admitting mistakes and transparently discussing organizational missteps, then following through when faced with misconduct and ethical issues, and always taking a stand for what is “right.”

Reinforce through governance. Creating an inspiring, engaging, usable and readable code of conduct brings an organization’s values to life. The most effective codes guide employees by explaining how actively practicing organizational values is the key to achieving the organization’s purpose and objectives. The code should enable all employees to identify ethics and compliance risks; understand how to manage those risks; make all employees feel comfortable raising concerns; and be unique to the organization. Most importantly, the code can’t just sit on a shelf; it must be readily available and accessible in multiple formats.

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