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Small Business Digest


Building Ethics Into a Company Culture One Decency at a Time

With the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations and the media focus over the past several years on examples of companies that had a poor ethical culture which led to their downfall (i.e., Enron, Worldcom, etc), many business owners are taking another look at their own corporate culture and how they can make changes to strengthen the ethical behavior of every employee within the company.

Studies have found that ethical behavior cannot simply be legislated by Sarbanes-Oxley or even by a companys values or mission statements.  Steve Harrison, Chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison, one of the largest global career management services companies, writes in his new book called The Managers Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies, that the way to achieve ethical behavior is through the use of small decencies.  Harrison defines a business decency as a gesture freely offered without expectation of reward that, in ways small and large, changes the corporate culture for the better.  It can be as simple as a boss remembering employees names and family details, or as complex as a company adopting an inner-city school.

He goes on to further define a decency as something that:

  • Gives meaning and texture to a companys value statements.
  • Generally requires neither permission nor a budget, but does require action.
  • Has no value until it is acted out.
  • Cannot be mandated or made an obligation it can only be freely given from one person to another.
  • Is not about a reward or a bribe there is no expectation of reciprocity from the giver.
  • Fuels the transformation of ordinary, everyday forms into the exquisite and the rare.
  •  Allows an individual and an organization to express and sustain the meaning that sustains them.

Harrison states that the recipe for a well-behaved business starts with institutionalized small decencies, that when combined with structural changes, such as laws, regulations, and governance, result in organizations that an owner and employees can be proud of.  His book focuses on examining the concept of decencies further and showing how the use of decencies in the workplace can be used to create and sustain an ethical and compliant corporate culture.  He also looks at how things that originally began as small decencies were institutionalized and grew into a big decency because of the values and success of the small act.

In an ethical workplace, leaders know how to:

  • Make employees feel respected
  • Reward and recognize those employees for excellent performance
  • Develop listening skills and improve communication
  • Demonstrate humility as a leader
  • Leaders also first examine their own behavior and ask themselves the question that Harrison refers to as the ultimate test if employees look over my shoulder and see all my decisions, would they see me as modeling the behaviors I want them to replicate?  Leaders have followers that voluntarily choose to follow, not subordinates that are enlisted to trail after them.

Harrison describes hundreds of examples of decencies that companies around the world have used to better their corporate culture.  He believes that listening is the ultimate decency and that by thinking strategically about listening and practices effective listening skills, leadership performance will improve.  He gives concrete ways that a leader can improve their listening skills.  These decency examples are grouped into Consideration, Recognition, Listening, Executive Humility and Separation decencies.  Each section gives specific examples of ways that companies have done small and big decencies and the results that it had on their corporate culture.

Harrison ends with a request that the reader join him in this mission of extending small decencies throughout the world of work.  By using small decencies and changing the corporate culture, business owners and leaders can create workplaces where people feel good about coming to work and feel loyal, valued and respected, which in turn, will lead to greater success of the company as a whole.

To learn more about Harrisons book, which is published by McGraw-Hill, you can visit

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