During the past few tumultuous weeks, the idioms about “a bad apple” or “a few bad apples” have been heard often in relation to law enforcement practices in the United States. Those idioms — and the proverb “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel” — are also relevant to the discourse about business integrity, and nurturing an organizational culture of ethical behavior.
The right reaction to seeing a bad apple is to stand up, speak up, and be counted. The questions, then, is whether employees are empowered and emboldened to do the right thing, or do they stay silent?
Many organizations cultivate a “speak up” culture backed up by non-retaliation policies, and much progress has been made. However, those who speak up are often exposed and penalized instead of protected. They are seen as a threat to doing business and to the way things are done, the status quo. Yet they are the ones with everything to lose and little to gain.
While those who speak up may be motivated by a number of factors (both positive and negative), the decision to do so often marks the end of their career — unfortunately, with a myriad of other consequences for their lives and wellbeing. Yet they are a vital part of the ethical ecosystem of any organization. When leaders fail to embody their ethical values and principles in every area, a consequence is that employees who see the bad apples do nothing. The rot sets in, structures start to decay, and systems begin to fail.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, when many indicators all point towards a notable increase in fraud and related behaviors, ethical organizations are going to need employees to be brave and bold — who speak up when they see egregious conduct.
Leaders can start by considering the three “R”s when faced with those who speak up in the midst of a crisis:
React – Employees may be forced to escalate their concerns outside the organization when its leaders will not even acknowledge the existence of those concerns, regardless of their validity. Reacting does not always mean starting a full investigation. But it does mean reassuring those who have spoken up that they have been heard.
Respond – Organizations will often have hotlines, an internal reporting hierarchy, training manuals, and comprehensive systems and procedures, yet still earn criticism for failing to respond, or respond in a meaningful way. An effective response is one that distills all the relevant factors in a constructive and timely manner and sets out a clear plan of action.
Remediate –Every crisis can be made worse — much worse — by a “head in the sand” mentality. Follow through on the organization’s plan of action and do what is necessary to turn the situation around. Take the steps needed to ensure that organizational values and principles remain intact. That is ethical leadership in action.