A matter of trust: most of us will never have to deal with the kinds of scandals that have plagued the corporate world, but that doesn't mean we don't encounter ethical dilemmas every day.

Author:Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela
Position:Finding your way - Cover story


Almost everyone agrees that ethical violations contribute to breaches in trust and other negative outcomes. But does behaving ethically necessarily increase trust? We intuitively understand relationships between ethics and trust, but most of us have a harder time thinking practically about what it means in terms of our organizational responsibilities.

We've all seen the headlines: "Apple's Workplace Violations Report" (The Hill); "Clarence Thomas Failed to Report Wife's Income, Watchdog Says" (Los Angeles Times); "Ethics Pledge Stymies Appointee" (The Hill); and "FIFA Bans, Fines Two Executive Committee Members" (Euro News), to list a few. The early years of the 21st century have witnessed a rash of corporate scandals. Enron, Global Crossing, Synergy, Xerox, Adelphia, Tyco and WorldCom are but a few examples where significant abuses resulted in the loss of billions of dollars, unemployment for thousands and criminal charges leveled at leaders. Deceptive messages, illegal accounting practices, corporate profits taken for individual gain, the creation of phantom entities to record transactions and disguise debt, and a variety of strategies to avoid taxation were used to secure questionable and illegal advantage, resulting in scandal and public outrage. The global financial crisis beginning in 2008 can be traced to multiple ethical abuses, as well as outright illegal behavior.

Although some of the most visible scandals can be linked to individual behavior, increasingly, organizational structures and cultures have been assessed blame. We know that people get fired, fined, denied positions and worse. We know that organizations lose customers, harm employees and even cease to exist. Without question, highly publicized ethical breaches lower trust.

Thankfully, most of us will never be associated with such serious levels of abuse. The vast majority of ethical breaches never make headlines. Some are never recognized, while others steadily lower organizational trust and overall effectiveness. It is these less visible abuses that are the types of ethical dilemmas most of us encounter.

So what are our personal and professional responsibilities for building ethical behavior and trust? The answer often given is, "Be ethical and trustworthy." It's a fundamental answer, but it's totally insufficient to build an effective organization. The real challenge is much more complex: distinguishing between ethics and trust, understanding the relationship between the two, understanding the relationship of trust to effectiveness, identifying ways to evaluate ethical communication and the drivers of trust, and intentionally using strategic communication to support ethics and build trust.

The relationship between ethics and trust

Simply put, ethics are the standards by which behaviors are evaluated for their morality-their rightness or wrongness. When...

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