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Showing Support and Speaking Out are Keys to an Ethical Culture

G. Richard Shell
Chairperson, legal studies and business ethics Wharton School University of Pennsylvania

The impetus for G. Richard Shell’s just-released fourth book, The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values. Advance Your Career, was seeing younger people coming back to grad school to find a new career track. They weren’t coming for lack of jobs or money; they came after being pressed into a “career or conscience” decision—their employers had asked them to do something unethical, and they quit.

But an ethical and purpose-driven culture appeals to more than these new generations of workers; it makes for a stronger and safer company. In senior living, harassment, fraud, or even a case of a good worker concealing illness or exhaustion can create untenable risks affecting residents, other employees, and a provider. Shell has worked not only with nurses, hospital administrators, and labor unions, but with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 CEOs in his role as thought leader, senior faculty member, and chair of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department.

In these excerpts from a longer interview, he discusses some of his research-based approaches for creating a positive, values-based workplace, where everyone can thrive.

Q. In senior living, some events get a great deal of attention, even though they’re unusual. Are there some keys to keeping the serious problems from happening?

A. Every industry has got huge scandals—from Google to the local police department. The importance of setting up a positive work environment is almost always related to small things. When you empower people to speak up on the issues that they encounter every day, you begin to create the kind of environment in which the big things won’t happen, because people who are inclined to try to get away with the big things know that they’re going to be observed and noted.

One of the most compelling statistics in the book is from the Ethics Resource Center: Roughly 40 percent of workers every year observed wrongdoing in their environment. They’re not observing major fraud; they’re just observing expense account abuse or someone lying about their hours or some little misrepresentation that’s going out to a family or a client.

If you let it slide, you’re starting to empower a culture that’s going to bite you. If you speak up, people might look at you as some sort of “snitch” or a problem.

So this book is about ways to do this effectively, and with dignity and honor, in a way that reinforces our best selves.

Q. Senior living faced a labor shortage before COVID—and it may get more pressing. How can we fit in ethics during this struggle to hire?

A. When you’re facing a labor shortage, it puts the managers under additional constraints, because they might feel if they step up to enforce standards and hold people accountable, workers may leave.

But it’s never wrong to stand up for values that are important. In the book, I talk about revisiting your motivation and the mission, recommitting to the values that are what brought you to the work in the first place. Then when you have a conversation with an employee about a problem that’s arisen, you bring the motivation that you want to help. You’re not the enemy; it’s a compassionate care mission.

Q. How can managers make it clear that they welcome people speaking up about problems and that it’s safe to do so?

A. The secret to getting a culture where people feel safe speaking up is trust. They really have to trust that the process that you’re setting up will protect them…

The beauty of speaking up is not just that you’re being virtuous. It’s that you’re probably unlocking the door, so everyone else can take a deep breath and say: We thought so, too. It breaks the dam. People have values and strong feelings about what’s right. But they’re afraid the rest of the group is against them.

You can empower them to speak up if they feel that it’s even just one person on their side.

One of the biggest insights as I was writing the book was something I call the “power of two.” There are classic social science experiments over the past 60 years about people deferring to authority and caving in to peer pressure. But there was one thing in these examples that could break open the pressure, and that was having one ally. You just have to find one person who thinks the same way you do, and that encourages people to speak up.

It gives them confidence. It shows them that they’re not just making this up, that there is someone out there that shares their values and sees that this is a problem. Once you have that power going for you, it’s a little easier to call for a meeting with a higher level.

It’s a huge power when it comes to values in the workplace. When people are isolated, when they feel alone, that’s when they shut up.

Q. Do you find the generations coming in, millennials and Generation Z, have more concern about ethics in the workplace?

A. It’s not so much that they’re more inclined to speak up. I think they’re more inclined to have passionate feelings—and those feelings may result in them simply turning and walking out the door, without telling anybody why they’re going. That’s where I think management can be very helpful. You can give them safe space where they can express themselves and channel those emotions in a much more responsible, effective way. The past couple of years, the explosion of attention to social justice and inequality, the kinds of issues that have been lurking in the background for hundreds of years, have come to the surface in a big way.

Once you start the cycle of trust, they realize someone’s looking out for them… It can be just a little bit of trust. It’s not all or nothing. A little is all you need to get things back on track to having a good relationship and really collaborating. The fundamental perception that builds trust is the other side perceives you care about their interests, and you’re willing to take a step at some potential sacrifice to yourself.