By Jean Roque, Trupp HR.

Why do some organizations struggle with ethics issues while others do not? As a leader, you may be wondering where things broke down in your organization. While we would love to simply point at a notorious root of all evil, rarely is it that simple.

Leadership sets the bar. In the movie, “Remember the Titans,” Julius, the defensive end, succinctly informs his team captain and future best friend why the team is performing poorly, “Attitude reflects leadership… captain.” While employees may choose to hold a higher standard, over time, they are likely to move their “line” closer to that of their leaders. When this is the leader of the company, the effects can be quite prolific. When it is buried in the departments or layers of a company, it may be a bit more challenging to spot.

People follow the herd. As pointed out in the book, Switch1, “In ambiguous situations, we all look to others for cues about how to behave.” We’ve all been there… the new employee eagerly scanning the office to understand accepted company norms. What happens when your new employee travels to his/her first trade show and discovers an entirely different set of behaviors that is considered acceptable when traveling?

Fear of losing talent. Most companies have a robust set of policies that clearly articulate to the employee what is and is not acceptable behavior. Each employee reads this set of employee policies and without concern agrees to abide. All sounds easy… right? But, what happens when your VP of Sales, who holds the keys to your top accounts, violates those policies? Are you willing to toe the line in the same manner as if it was one of your entry level employees?

Cultural underpinnings run deep. You may have stepped into a role that’s handing you some surprises. Even though leadership is apparently doing “all the right things” today, you may be dealing with the consequences of behaviors that occurred long before your arrival. Now, you must decide if you are going to acquiesce to the established norms—whether by complacency or active participation—or draw the proverbial line in the sand and start the arduous process of redefining the acceptable norms for your organization.

Even though you may not be the cause of unethical behaviors, as a leader you have a responsibility for the ethics of your organization. As such, it is a leader’s obligation to establish a high bar, enforce that bar, and address those behaviors and individuals that are not upholding the organization’s ethical standards.

1. Heath, Chip, and Heath, Dan, Switch. New York: Crown Publishing, 2010.