How to Start a Values Conversation

Corporate leaders always say they want to talk about the importance of their organization’s ethical values, but those conversations aren’t necessarily easy to start. So today let’s look at a resource that Penn State University publishes to help its leaders with the task.

The resource is a page on the website of Penn State’s ethics and compliance function called “Conversation Starters.” As the name implies, it’s a set of nine sample questions that Penn State managers can use to talk to their teams about the school’s ethical values. For example… 

  • How do we try to instill the value of ______ in our daily activities and program?
  • Where do we, as a group, fall short in demonstrating the value of ___________?
  • How has the value of _________ formed and motivated our work, goals, and daily activities as a group?

Penn State’s ethical values (the ones to fill in the blanks above) are community, discovery, excellence, integrity, respect, and responsibility. The Conversation Starters page also offers several value-specific questions for each of those values, too, such as:

  • Discovery: How do we manifest the value of discovery by trying to better ourselves through further learning, developing and enhancing our own skills, and self-reflection?
  • Integrity: What academic or professional standards are applicable to our group? How are our actions aligned with these standards?
  • Community: How does our work at Penn State directly benefit or improve the communities we serve?

I don’t know when Penn State posted these starter questions, or why; although it looks like Penn State recently launched a university-wide survey of how well the school implements its values in daily practice. Then again, none of that really matters. The rest of the compliance community owes Penn State a debt of thanks for posting these tools simply because talking about ethical values can be really hard.

The Art of Conversation (on Ethics)

I mean, who actually sits around talking about ethical values in casual conversation, other than philosophy students? Not many people, I’m willing to bet. Ethical values are abstract concepts, and our days are typically filled with practical matters that need action right now: products to sell, presentations to deliver, deadlines to meet, decisions to make. Who has time to pause all that so you can consider the meaning of the words on that mission statement in the breakroom?

Plus, it just feels weird to talk about ethical values. It’s hard to do. It requires clear reasoning, and sometimes leads you to surprising or awkward conclusions. No wonder so few people study philosophy.

Nevertheless, if you want that fabled “culture of ethics and compliance” we’re all supposed to achieve, then connecting a company’s ethical values to employees’ daily routines is crucial. Why? Because if employees don’t see that connection, they’ll be less sure about whether or when to speak up when something is amiss

They might speak up about clear, simple violations of procedure, because those violations are easy to recognize: you’re supposed to do Task X one way, but Joe in procurement did it another way. Speaking up about violations of policy, on the other hand, can be more difficult. Sometimes you might have a policy without a corresponding procedure (say, in how employees respect each other in the workplace), or sometimes people can manipulate a procedure to violate the spirit of the policy — which is to say, the person is violating the company’s ethical values.

If the employee doesn’t understand how the company’s ethical values are supposed to permeate throughout the company, he or she might not know that such abuses should be reported. The reporter might even have a gut feeling that the abuse is wrong, but think, “Well, that’s just how I feel; other people might have different moral standards and who am I to judge?” 

Reporting requires people to make a judgment. So the more you educate them on how the company’s moral values are supposed to happen in practice, the better they can make such judgments.

So companies need to push their managers to talk about ethical values, even if that means pushing those managers out of their comfort zones. Tools such as Penn State’s conversation starters can therefore be invaluable to help with that task.

Bringing Values to the First Line

Another question that came to mind as I read Penn State’s sample questions: who is the intended consumer here? Who is supposed to use these questions? 

Not compliance officers themselves, because you’re the ones drafting such questions. I’d even say senior executives don’t need much help here, because savvy CEOs already know how to explain what the company “is about.” 

Specifically, conversation starter questions are great for middle managers. They are the connective tissue between employees and senior management, and they’re ones employees observe and follow the most. Senior executives can talk about values all they want; their exhortations tend to go in one ear and out the other. When your middle manager two desks down from you talks about values, that matters. That’s what employees remember — and, if the middle manager does the job well, remembers.

Ethisphere brought this issue to light in one of its research reports a few years ago. One of the best ways to keep employees engaged in ethical conduct, Ethisphere found, was to have middle managers who talk “frequently” about ethics with their direct reports — and not in any formal setting for training, either. Managers just had to talk about ethics in normal workplace interactions.

That brings me to my last point: when to use these starter questions. Penn State recommends that faculty, staff, and students use the questions in small group meetings. DuPont Corp. used to have a similar policy, where employee meetings had to begin by someone first explaining how the meeting tied back to one of DuPont’s four core values. (I don’t know if this is still the case; if anyone at DuPont wants to let me know, I’m all ears.)

Anyway, what tools do you use to help managers get out of their comfort zones and talk about ethics? If you have any to share, drop me a line at [email protected] and we can include them in a future post. 

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