Nexus of Trust and Ethics

May 6, 2016

It is pretty obvious that trust and ethics are related, but you may not have thought about some of the nuances in a conscious way. This article shines a light on the relationship between ethics and trust and offers an example of how a community can change conditions for the better.

I cannot think of a single ethical scandal that did not result in a loss of trust in some area. In fact, the loss of trust may be one way to identify or define an ethical dilemma. If we are not sure what we are contemplating is right, and trust is taking a hit, chances are it is an ethical problem.

The reverse is not true, however. There can be situations which result in lower trust that do not involve ethics at all. Trust can be compromised by minute transactions like the specific wording of an e-mail, or some rolling of the eyes in a meeting.

We all are aware that when trust is damaged, it takes a lot of effort to repair it. I have described a process to regain lost trust in another article. The good news is that with the right attitude and approach, it is possible to repair trust to a higher state than before it was compromised.

The challenge with ethics is that the existence of an ethical problem is situational, and the severity will vary depending on the person involved. For example, we would all agree that stealing is unethical, but I can come up with a scenario where stealing might be a perfectly ethical thing to do.

Suppose you are a trash collector. In a recycle bin there are some books that you might like to read. The books do not belong to you, but they have been discarded, so you feel it is appropriate to salvage the books for your reading pleasure. I suspect most, but not all, readers would agree that it is ethical to take the books.

Likewise, killing another person is not an ethical thing to do, yet we would all agree there are circumstances where killing another person is the correct thing. In a time of war, killing the enemy is often the objective of a mission. In addition if a thief is about to kill you, you have a right to kill the robber, if necessary, to save yourself.

In extreme cases, it is easy to see how some things are unethical. For example, what Bernie Madoff did to his investors was clearly unethical, yet like many ethical scandals, the pathway to egregious actions may have started out as perfectly legal interpretations of existing rules. He then got deeper and deeper into illegal and unethical actions.

Sometimes people get on a slippery slope because if they can do X today, then doing X+1 tomorrow seems like not a far reach. It does not take long before they are doing things that are clearly not appropriate.

They may not even be aware of the erosion of ethical standards that is going on, so if another individual has the courage to speak up about it, the problem can be stopped before more damage is done.

That is why trust is such an important way to prevent unethical actions. When there is high trust, there is usually low fear about telling the truth to superiors. In a high trust environment, the whistle blower knows that by pointing out an ethical dilemma, he is really doing the organization a favor and will be rewarded rather than punished.

What would it look like if a whole community were to espouse greater trust and ethics?

In Rochester, New York, there is an organization called “Elevate Rochester.” The organization has been in existence for 16 years, and I am in my sixth year of serving on the Board of Directors. Our vision is to have Rochester be the “Gold Standard” in terms of promoting ethical business cultures.

Each year we have an award ceremony (modeled after the Academy Awards – complete with red carpet) to create greater community emphasis on ethical corporate behaviors by celebrating those groups that are doing it right. During the year, we encourage local organizations to submit an application for the award.

The judging process is quite rigorous and includes interviews and site visits along with a written application. Organizations that meet the standard are recipients of the award each year.

The year culminates with a ceremony in October when a few companies receive the “ETHIE” Award. Each company has a professionally-made video of their operation and receives a trophy, similar to the Oscar. It is a very big deal here in Rochester, and dozens of organizations have received the award and have become part of our Honor Roll.

In addition, we run several programs each year to help educate the business and government communities on how to focus more energy on ethical behaviors. I have spoken at several events as part of the group (we have a list of people who speak on ethics) and have brought in speakers from other parts of the country. For example, we had an extremely successful event a few years ago, when we brought in my friend Bob Vanourek: coauthor of “Triple Crown Leadership.”

Elevate Rochester is a very active group, and we try to spread the word by celebrating organizations that are doing great work in the area of ethics. When I speak about ethics in other areas, I add some information about our program and how it really helps keep ethics front and center in terms of organizational behaviors.

The Elevate Rochester organization is fulfilling its mission by encouraging organizations in the area to focus consciously on their program to become more ethical. Even organizations that are not selected for an ETHIE Award gain tremendously from the effort to understand and enhance their ethical cultures. Because several companies are honored each year, the entire community is more aware of ethics and the benefits of operating with higher trust.

Think of trust and ethics as separate concepts that are synergistic and supportive. Encourage the leaders of your community to recognize and celebrate organizations that consistently do the right thing. You will be helping your organization and your community when you do it.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at 585-392-7763. Website BLOG He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.