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Virtuous or Virtual?

I rubbed my eyes and looked at the phone again suddenly aware that I must sorely need a cup of coffee or better glasses. I reread the sentence about an upcoming virtual meeting which did not say a virtuous meeting as I first thought. Unconscious slip? Nothing seems particularly virtuous to me these days but, the word keeps showing up in my life.

I have been binge-watching “Greenleaf” in the evenings as a reminder that my issues pale in comparison to the drama this make-believe family has, episode after episode. From arson to murder, espionage to drugs, adultery to child abuse, the matriarch of this pastoral family insists she is a virtuous woman despite it all, called to lead the flock – a flock hungry for leadership, willing to turn a blind eye.

This morning, I received an email about The Virtue Project, an initiative to help client companies find the virtue within and use it to better their businesses and the world. So, I feel compelled to ask, is your company virtuous or trying to be? I’m having a hard time reconciling this word with our business sector.

I’ve been down the rabbit hole looking up Aristotle’s and bibilical virtues which show up as chastity, temperance, charity, patience, kindness, humility, courage, generosity, honesty, hard work, conscientious – ultimately, moral excellence. So, whose morals are we talking about?

The closest I can come to organizational virtue is a word that we do use at our companies which somehow has been woven into our compliance programs – ethics. However, ethics and compliance are vastly different and, the amalgamation of both doesn’t leave a lot of room for virtue words. Ethical behavior is an internal mechanism, our North Star and moral compass. As individuals we perceive "right and wrong" in a particular situation and act accordingly. Ultimately, ethics, as the foundation of integrity and honesty, gives us optimum standards of conduct.

Compliance, on the other hand, is "external", it gives us minimum requirements of conduct. We can choose to comply with rules promulgated by others, or not. They may or may not reflect our perception of right and wrong -- but they represent a consensus of what society feels is "right" or "wrong". Ethics tells us what we ought to do, compliance dictates what we must do. One is a personal choice and one is a legal or societal requirement.

Do you have a culture of ethics and does it trickle up through the ranks or trickle down from the top? Consider that it starts from Day One. Does your organization recruit and screen employees because of their character, in addition to their competence? Are their personal values in line with those of the company’s? Even if the onboarding process explains organizational values to new employees, can they relate to those values or are they just words on paper written in the Code of Conduct or Ethics Policy?

Do your employees or volunteers treat their “home away from home” and its inhabitants with the same respect and consideration as they do their families and real homes? Do they have a shared sense of ownership? Ultimately, do the “do unto others” principals apply when decisions are made? Business requires that hard choices must be made but, can they be done with respect, honesty and kindness?

Personally, I believe this values exchange runs both directions. It starts with you, the founder or leaders of the business. If you need a reminder, listen to the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s tune, Man in the Mirror. “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make the change.” Do you inspire your team to take initiative and act in the company’s best interest or have you become the hall monitor, micromanaging them with rules and regulations in your compliance programs that they can’t relate to?

Do you offer opportunities for recognition, awards or other social reinforcements for desirable ethical behavior? We offer generous praise to our family when they show up honorably and admire heroes and heroines who step forward in admirable ways. Are we as forthcoming with our co-workers?

Do your quarterly reviews and succession plans have a metric that evaluates the extent of an employee’s involvement in mentoring or other forms of role modeling? Are your incentive and promotion systems based solely on individual performance? If so, employees are more likely to focus on their own gains at the expense of others and the organization. When employees are recognized and rewarded for their broader contributions, they become better corporate citizens.

Do you treat employees respectfully when they leave or retire? It is possible for them to leave as brand ambassadors for your company even if the working relationship is no longer viable. It’s unlikely if they leave bitter and believing that they have been treated inhumanely at a very disturbing time of their lives.

Most people fundamentally know what is right and want to act accordingly. However, sometimes good people can make terrible choices if they feel pressured by a competitive environment, by their colleagues and managers and quite frankly by the environment within which they operate. Perhaps its time to offer our constituents new avenues and options, to do our best to provide them a new reality even if means risking business in the face of the alternative - to show that integrity reigns and that virtue is actually possible in a profit driven world.

Copyright © 2020

All rights reserved – Linda Lattimore


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