Professor Bolesław Rok: Shaping ethical conduct

Professor Bolesław Rok: Shaping ethical conduct

The improvement of corporate culture is generally considered important by managerial staff, but when ethics is presented as a foundation for this culture, certain doubts may appear. Ethics in business is treated by some employees as a threat. Various declarations and assurances concerning the necessity to follow the rules of ethics may be heard, but when it comes to specifics, previous priorities and habits usually supersede ethical thinking.

Professional ethics management requires managers to possess specific knowledge concerning their organization and the external conditions as well as to select appropriate instruments and procedures. Improper behaviors of people in organizations do not result from their unethical nature, but from the failure of the managerial staff to devote sufficient attention to the improvement of corporate culture. This cannot usually be seen during official meeting or public conferences, but during breaks, in corridors, and at coffee machines employees keep repeating the same mantra over and over. It goes like this: “Everyone knows that nobody really follows these beautiful rules written in codes of ethics. In business you can’t be ethical, you have to look for ways to stay in the game, fight for survival. They expect us to achieve above-average results, so we have to manage somehow. Business and ethics don’t have – and shouldn’t have – anything in common, because business is aimed at profit, while ethics is standing in its way.”

Clearly it is difficult to talks about ethics in corporate culture. The topic is very broad and requires references to specific, sometimes sensitive examples from the life of a given company or even from the lives of specific individuals working there. Many difficulties encountered in discussions on ethics are also related to the subjectivity of moral assessment, especially when juxtaposed with everything going on around. Ethics is a process of improvement, just like any other management process. We can learn from our own mistakes or the mistakes of others. This requires meetings, trainings, conferences, and rewards – the regular learning process. Employees need guidance and clear rules on what and how to do in different situations – in a purely operational sense. In a bad company even the most ethical of people will get “lost” with time. In a good company even those least sensitive to ethics become better and remain under control.

The necessity to build the involvement of all employees by integrating them around common goals and desired key values, at the same time leaving many decisions at the level of an individual, has been increasingly emphasized in management science in recent years. Such a purpose-driven ethical corporate culture takes into account the mutual relationship between a company and its stakeholders in terms of simultaneously creating economic, ecological, an social value.  It is especially important for large companies, where employees do not remain in frequent contact and external social pressure is increasingly higher.

Full implementation of an ethics program requires consistent work and constant cooperation with all employees. The effectiveness of such a program is higher if more attention is paid in daily operation to the promotion of ethical conduct, monitoring of adherence to ethical norms and standards, and active involvement of employees in the initiatives undertaken. Ethics programs may be beneficial for companies not because they have a positive impact on their image, but mainly because they create a new quality of corporate culture.

Most companies in Poland have not yet implemented any ethics program management systems or ethical risk management systems – to use a different name. There are no monitoring instruments, and most abuses are revealed by accident. Of course legal and industry-specific regulations also play a role in the creation of ethical infrastructure in the business environment. We may hope that the “Act on transparency in public life” currently discussed in Poland, especially the fragment concerning ethics programs, brings about some positive changes.

According to the bill, companies would be obliged to implement internal anti-corruption procedures, in particular: codes of ethics, anti-corruption clauses, procedures and guidelines on receiving gifts, ethics trainings for employees, and functioning internal channels for signaling abuse. If such internal anti-corruption procedures are ineffective or “deceptive”, a company may be fined or excluded from public procurement.

Regardless of the legal regulations, it is still recommended to apply well-proven management solutions. In order to successfully combat violations of ethical conduct, it is important to have certain warning lights “built in”, which provides the comfort of preventing abuse or violation of the rules of ethics before they happen. It is said that an ounce of prevention is usually worth a pound of cure. You could also say the following: if a company cannot afford to install warning lights, i.e. an ethics program, it has to accept that some fires will have to be put out in the future, which is usually significantly more expensive. It is recommended to apply standards (e.g. ISO19600, ISO37001, Ethics Program Standard of Global Compact), search for the best models and good practices in various areas of operation, as well as pay attention to bad practices – in order to openly discuss them. It is important not to put anything on the shelf, but be open to changes. Still, the most important thing is to have the daily support of the management and listen to what the employees say.

The purpose of an ethics management system is not just to prevent abuse. Ethics cannot only be justified by the will to prevent evil. The strength of values and ethics is primarily positive and constructive. Ethics is an elusive foundation in the process of making constant changes when analyzing one’s own behaviors and decisions as well as those of others.  This is why conscious and responsible leadership in a given organization is indispensible. Responsible leadership is defined as a value- and ethics-based process of managing the relationship between leaders and stakeholders integrated around a shared goal, the significance of which is shaped by both parties. This process mutually strengthens the joint motivation and obligation to build sustainable value and positive social change.  Responsible leadership is, therefore, the art of building and maintaining ethical relationships with all stakeholders. These relations are based on the sense of justice, recognition of mutual value, care, and responsibility concerning a wide range of economic, social, and ecological tasks.


Prof. ALK dr hab. Bolesław Rok, Positive Entrepreneurship Research Lab, Kozminski University

Last Updated on March 15, 2021 by Karolina Ampulska