Defence & Aerospace | Mining & Construction | Rail & Metro

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Government of India


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CVO's Desk


Emerging from Crisis - an Ethical Approach:

We are witnessing an unprecedented situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations have had to react quickly and undergone many changes like remote working, increasingly flexible work schedule, drastic cost cutting measures, restricted travel, intensive leverage of technology to minimize physical interaction, virtual collaboration, de-coupling and new coupling of business partners, maintaining cash flow for immediate survival etc. The strategists are working relentlessly to reinvent business models and plans. It has emerged that one of the significant factors in the new plan would be as to how the companies would be treating their employees, customers and investors.

The pandemic has led to extraordinary challenges in workplace and increased pressure on employees for immediate results. While exact impact of the pandemic is yet to be assessed, the pressure on employees to compromise on the organization ethics and rules to deliver results quickly will definitely increase. Even before the pandemic, as per the Global Business Ethics Survey (2019) report, about 22% employees across the globe felt this pressure. With survival at stake, it is obvious that this pressure will only increase.

In such a scenario, it would be the core organization culture, ethics and compliance initiatives and leader’s thinking and behavior, that will determine who will sustain and walk out as winner from this crisis. Therefore, it is the opportune time to refresh and deepen our understanding of organization culture and take initiative to reorient our ethical management and compliance framework.

Let’s probe some of the puzzling human behavior within an organization. Is it not intriguing that why even the most honest, conscientious and intelligent employees, in spite of good intentions, many at times slip and take unethical decisions? Inspite of organization’s explicit rules, code of conduct and their communication and considerable investment in cultural programs, professional development and other soft controls; employees fumble on ethical parameters.

According to Muel Kaptien, Clarity of what constitute desirable and undesirable behavior, Role modeling among officers, Transparency of behavior, Achievability of goals and commitment of employee, Openness to discussion of viewpoints, dilemmas and transgressions, and enforcement of behavior are some factors that influences employee’s ethical behavior within an organization. The more prominent these factors are, the less unethical behavior takes place at work place.

The first factor namely; “Clarity of desirable /undesirable behavior” greatly influences a person in an organization. The clarity means to the extent to which organization establishes clear expectations from the employee. The expectation is established through laying down norms, values and responsibilities; some are directly and explicitly established and communicated, while others are indirect and inferred through other means like physical environment. Even if norms of responsible behavior are evident in an organization, people are not necessarily aware of them and do not always behave consistently as per these norms. In addition to laying down norms and communicating them to employees; it is crucial that these are activated at right moment to nudge them to behave in the desired direction. Norms may be in their sub-conscious mind but still not get triggered at the right time.

Generally, organization lays down ambitious core values like customer focus, responsiveness, innovation, sustainability, integrity etc., but seldom prescribe how these can be translated into action in work situation. For example, how the value “speed and responsiveness” is understood by employees in their works and across the company? Some take it as per the prescribed time period given in the rule book and some take it as per their own convenience. It is also not practical to prescribe timeline for each activity. As a result, there is no uniform and consistent response to customers/vendors on this value. Employees are left to their discretion to define what speed and responsiveness means to them. People get lost in putting these abstract, wide ranged behavioral values into action. Managing on the basis of values and principles should not be left to the interpretation of employees. The value should be translated into actual action, so that there is no ambiguity in understanding and implementation.

Moreover, if norms and values come with some flyers, associated cognitive stimuli, then it’s easier to trigger the value at the right moment through conditioning to ensure desired behavior. Conditioning of these flyers with values could be done through daily discourse, roleplay, training and other rituals. In many organizations, there is practice to read and recite code of conduct at daily, or weekly or monthly and prominently display core values through symbols or signs. Such practice reinforces presence of values in the form of flyers or symbols in the conscious minds of employees.

The practice of putting signature is one of the flyer or stimuli as it activates sense of responsibility and nudges a person in right way. Declaration of annual property return or conflict of interest by employees are other examples to activate associated values. Similarly, other flyers and symbols could be designed to associate with other core values. However, it should be remembered that, at times, too much nudging irritates a person and may result in opposite behavior. Therefore, trick is to design the nudging appropriately and optimally.

In addition to written expectations of desirable behavior, other indirect factors such as physical environment of an organization also determines norms and display values and communicate to employees. Good organizations are conscious of broken window theory which shows that if one window glass is broken and it goes without repair immediately, then other windows may get broken shortly. It is imperative to change it quickly to avoid others getting damaged; as a broken window incites an unwarranted behavior either from outsiders or insiders to break another window. For example, any misconduct of an employee, if not dealt promptly and sufficiently; is bound to invite more such misconducts in the organization.

Unethical behavior is very difficult to isolate; organization cannot be ethical in one situation and unethical in another. If they want to tackle internal fraud, then it should also prevent other anti-social behavior such as aggression, intimidation and hostility within organization. Unethical behavior acts as wildfire and spreads fast. It is an integrated approach which successfully leads to establishing an ethical working culture.

An office, being a living entity, reflects its inner core values though its interior design and architecture. The interior design, display artifacts, aroma and fragrance of a room of a CMD or Director reflect a lot about the norms and values of the person and the organization and their relationship. Similarly, the architecture of the building also exhibits values of the organization. Organization having transparent and well lighted physical working space, speaks about assigning high value to transparency and openness in their working. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

So, we have seen that clarity of expectation of desirable behavior and its effective communication to employee, directly or indirectly and nudging it at critical moments through training is one of the important factor for ensuring ethical behavior at work place.

The takeaway for BEML is to translate its FIRST value into clear and practical steps, identify and associate with appropriate flyers and condition them through training. It’s not an easy task but also not impossible. Only we have to believe this concept and take a first step. We have done so in Ethical Dilemma training where PRAYAAS program was conceptualized and implemented successfully across the company by training more than 120 senior officers including 12 trainers.

An organization should find the delicate balance between rules and personal responsibility for employee; it should not have too many or too few rules. The task for management is to find an optimum level. PRAYAAS is one of the initiative to increase the personal responsibility of officers. We must remember that the task of a fruit grower is not just to prevent rotting of an apple in the basket, but also to cultivate apples of higher quality. Leadership should focus on growing high quality productive and satisfied employee in an organization.

I will discuss the other factors in my next article.

Vidya Bhushan Kumar, IFS
Chief Vigilance Officer