Over the last several years, integrity has emerged as a significant force in business. Companies are being pushed hard — by employees, customers and governments — to put aside a singular focus on shareholders and adopt a multi-stakeholder approach. Moreover, leaders are increasingly held accountable for their bad behavior.
Thanks to the power of the internet and the empowerment of victims through movements like #MeToo, misconduct that was previously swept under the rug is now aired for all the world to see. Studies demonstrate that there is an enormous opportunity for leaders who get integrity right to build brands that outperform the market. For leaders stuck in the last century, on the other hand, ethical failures can derail careers and take down entire brands.
In the past, integrity was an uncomfortable subject within companies. Language about integrity might have been buried in a rarely read code of ethics or framed with a nice landscape photo on an office poster, but no one talked about what integrity really meant in the workplace.
Silence and ambiguity are the enemies of integrity. To build an ethical workforce, companies need to proactively foster conversations about what integrity really means, how employees should treat each other and how their companies can be a force for good. Those conversations should begin up front with new employees during onboarding.
To build an effective onboarding program that promotes ethics, here are five lessons that I’ve learned over my career as a federal prosecutor and general counsel at Airbnb that apply across all industries and to businesses small and large.
1. Be Human
Recording a speech from the chief executive officer or forcing employees to watch a video about the importance of integrity doesn’t send a compelling message. Have a live, human, interactive conversation with new employees about your code of ethics.
2. The Message Must Come From a Leader
Integrity is a responsibility of leadership, and if its message doesn’t come from the top of the company, then it won’t have the needed impact. For years, Airbnb employees remarked that it made a huge impression during their first week to hear live, directly from the general counsel of the company, about ethics. I learned this lesson from Meg Whitman, former CEO at eBay, who used to talk to all new hire classes at the company. It’s time well spent.
You can’t outsource integrity to a mid-level human resources (HR) manager or a third-party consultant. Pick a leader from within your company who enjoys speaking to groups and who can communicate the integrity message in an authentic manner, or rotate responsibility for the work among several leaders, such as the CEO, the head of HR, the general counsel or a business leader.
3. Use Real Examples
New employees will be excited to interact with a leader from the company in their first week, but how that leader and the onboarding facilitator talk to them about integrity matters. Preachy speeches about “zero tolerance” aren’t effective, nor are talks filled with legal jargon. Give real examples, tailored to your particular industry, that have put employees at your company in challenging ethical situations. These scenarios might include romantic relationships at work, excessive alcohol consumption, using office resources for personal use or accepting gifts from vendors. Ethics presents interesting and engaging areas for discussion, and employees appreciate an honest, direct discussion about tough issues that gives them welcome clarity around company ethics policies.
4. Solicit Feedback
The best way to improve your onboarding program is to solicit anonymous feedback from all participants when they complete it. We used feedback to hone our ethics talk, and for the last year, it’s been the highest-rated portion of the entire orientation week. Comments from new employees like, “It makes me feel good to work for a company that really cares about doing the right thing” or, “I’ve never worked at a place that puts such an emphasis on integrity” mean that we’re conveying the message effectively.
5. You’re Not Finished
A strong onboarding ethics talk means you’re getting off to a great start with new employees, but that important first impression can fade over time if it’s not reinforced. Follow up with messages throughout the year to make sure that everyone keeps ethics top of mind. We released a popular series of short, fun monthly videos starring different employees in different ethical situations, and we also sent follow-up emails and shared short messages at company meetings.
An effective integrity program doesn’t cost a lot of money to implement. The main investments are time and a commitment from your leadership to back up the ethics talk with ethical action. What’s more, data shows that companies with ethical business practices outperform the market and their less ethical peer companies. There’s value in having values.