Thursday, May 3, 2007

Decency at work

Visions of CEOs doing the "perp walk" as they are taken into federal court by stern-faced federal marshalls, front-page stories chronicling executives billion-dollar compensation packages and top managers traveling in corporate jets while hundreds of their workers are laid off are just some of the images that adversely impact the workplace these days.

Such images are demoralizing, of course. Most of us can't hope to make in our lifetimes what some of these executives earn in one day. Add to that the companies that are stingy with annual bonuses or raises, managers who routinely take all the credit for themselves and benefits constantly being trimmed back and it's no wonder we have a problem with ethics in the workplace these days.

Wouldn't it be nice, then, if these negative images were balanced by some everyday decencies on the job? What if instead of the bully manager -- who governs the workplace through bluster and profanity -- there was a boss who welcomed employees by name each day? What if the CEO showed up for the midnight shift and brought in pizza so that workers could take a break and talk to him about their concerns? What if a supervisor gave an employee an extra hour for lunch because the worker had been doing such a good job?

These may not seem like much in the face of rampant corporate executive misdeeds and greed, but companies have got to start somewhere and the answer may be that they begin with the small stuff. Or, as Steve Harrison says, these small decencies would become the "building blocks of an ethical culture."

Harrison, head of Lee Hecht Harrison and author of "The Manager's Book of Decencies," says that while regulatory actions such as Sarbanes-Oxley were supposed to restore investor confidence and increase accountability, some companies have been so "ham-fisted" with their responses to the regulations they've reminded us quite clearly that "regulations by themselves can't move the needle to create well-behaved companies."

While Harrison suggests numerous ways for companies and bosses to improve their decency factor, it's worth noting that one of the key improvements is for bosses at all levels to listen more to employees and quite hogging all the limelight and credit for themselves.

So, let's start listening. It's time the voices of those in the trenches be heard when it comes time to decide how best to create a decent place to work.

Some ideas:

* Be polite. This goes beyond just saying "please" and "thank you." Don't interrupt when someone else is talking, don't gossip and don't exclude anyone.

* Don't lie. Lying is a way of controlling and manipulating people and situations.

* Ask questions. By listening to what someone else has to offer, you continually learn -- and that's critical for companies striving to compete in a global marketplace.

* Don't blame. Look for solutions. Don't make personal attacks or criticize personal characteristics.

* Keep your word. It's not fair to say you'll do something and then not follow through.

* Communicate. Controlling information is a power play that demoralizes employees and leads to hostility.

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