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The Honor Code of Business

Recent events have once again reminded us of the impact of unethical business practices on a famous, trusted brand and company – this time the name is Wells Fargo.  The banking giant was fined $185-million dollars after an investigation determined more than 2-million bank and credit card accounts were opened or applied for without the customers’ knowledge or permission. The events are being investigated by lawmakers.  The CEO, Division head, and 5,000+ employees have been terminated.   The CEO has forfeited most of his 2016 salary, including bonuses and $41 million dollars in stock awards. The value of the enterprise has dropped to its lowest level in years and could end up costing Wells Fargo over $8 billion dollars.  This week they began an advertising campaign to attempt to restore trust among their customers.

I know from personal experience that there are many highly ethical business leaders in this company who have worked daily to steward the brand reputation well and to honorably serve the Wells Fargo customer. But in these circumstances, everyone in this company is suffering.  For team members who face the customer, the job has shifted from creating good business opportunities – to apologizing to customers and rebuilding the tarnished brand reputation.

Another reminder of an important leadership question – are we, as business leaders, doing everything we can to protect the organizations where we work from poor conduct?  Are we taking this matter of ethical business actions as seriously as we should?  So today I offer four topics you might want to review for your team or company – to be a good steward of the organization you serve.

Is everyone on your team crystal clear on what good conduct looks like?

My experience suggests that we each have a different set of boundaries on business conduct. What I think is “right,” may be different than what you think is “right.” It is important to have these calibration conversations well ahead of a test of our conduct. Once a questionable act has occurred, it’s too late to talk about the definitions.

As just one example of what this might look like, a few years ago we put our Popeyes Honor Code training on a web learning system – which every employee must review a class with a quiz on specific ethical situations.  An illustration shows the person two or three responses to the situation – and asks them to choose the right answer.  If they chose the incorrect answer, the screen re-educates them on the Popeyes standard for this situation. And in this process, the conduct we expect is clearly defined.

Do you watch carefully for good ethical decision-making in the normal course of business?

Leaders have the opportunity each day to watch their organization in action.  And just about every decision we make in business has an ethical component.  When you hire someone, there are best practices for checking references before the hiring date.  In performance reviews, there are opportunities to evaluate, not just “what” happened, but “how did the results get delivered.” In conflict decisions between teams or departments, there is an opportunity to observe the level of candor, transparency, and trust between people.  Watch for these daily situations for celebrating good ethical practices – and for correcting mis-guided practices early and often.

Do you often recognize people in public for making the right choices?

There is no better teacher, than public recognition for encouraging people to do the right things. Everyone person enjoys positive feedback – and appreciates when their leader notices their work. They also appreciate feedback on their demonstrated values.

At Popeyes, we have an annual meeting in January for all team members of the corporation.  A few years ago, we started giving one award for each of the principle statements we value in our organization – passion, learning, fact-based based decisions, people development, accountability, and humility.  At the end of the event, the capstone award is given for the servant leader of the year.  This recognition process is managed by the prior year award winners – and they treasure the opportunity to shape this recognition for the principles we hold dear.  Each award presentation gives us the opportunity to role-model our principles – and ethical business actions.  In doing so, we celebrate and we train the organization to do the right thing.

Do you have a written protocol to guide your actions in the event an ethical breach occurs?

Even with all of the proactive actions in place – ethical breaches do occur.  It is virtually impossible to anticipate every situation – and to avoid every troublesome outcome.  A leader must be prepared in advance — with a clear outline of the actions that will be taken at the time of the breach. This becomes your “bible” of what to do in the moment of crisis.  At that moment, the organization will be watching closely to see you take swift, consistent action to reaffirm the ethical values of the company.  Will you be candid? Will you be swift to collect the facts? Will you assemble a core group of trusted advisors to help you lead through the situation? Will you be ready for the public questions of your stakeholders?  The Boy Scout motto “be prepared” is the mantra to protect your team and organization from the potentially devastating outcomes of losing trust with your customers and colleagues.

Take a few minutes today and think about your leadership role in guiding the ethical conduct of your team. This is one of the ways you steward the reputation of the place that you work. And that reputation is the firm foundation of trust required for business to prosper.

Serve well.

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