Making Transparent Ethical Communication a Reality

By Pamela Babcock Apr 2, 2014

NEW YORK—As companies expand globally, communications officers and human resource professionals should play a key role in driving employee engagement and establishing principles necessary for an organization to responsibly achieve its goals. Clear and consistent communication from leaders—especially HR—to employees is necessary to create that ethical culture in the workplace.

“If you want to drive an ethical culture, you have to work across the C-suite,” said Paul Gennaro, senior vice president of corporate communications and chief communication officer for AECOM, in an interview with SHRM Online at the recent Global Ethics Summit here.

“I can’t do it as a communicator,” he continued. “It’s got to be from the HR side—what are the values of the organization? How do we measure performance? Are we reinforcing ethics and integrity? Are we making it part of our culture?”

Gennaro moderated a March 20, 2014, panel at the conference, which was presented by the Ethisphere Institute and Thomson Reuters. Ethics and compliance leaders and communications professionals spoke about the need for clear messages to employees and the public at large to reinforce ethical principles at work and convince consumers of the business’ standards.

Corporations that want to make transparent ethical communication a reality need to be “clear, consistent and comprehensive,” said panelist Edward L. Queen, Ph.D., director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership at the Emory University Center for Ethics.

That’s because people quickly learn the difference between expressed and real values, and can easily discern whether an organization is acting out its values on a daily basis and rewarding people that go the extra mile.

Gennaro noted that in a Hill+Knowlton Strategies survey on sustainability, transparency and business performance, 82 percent of the 1,000 respondents said they believed a company could regain trust through an honest and transparent reporting of its efforts to be more sustainable, even if that reporting reveals that the company fell short of its goals.

“Even if we’re not perfect, that’s OK,” Gennaro said. “[The public and employees] just want honesty. They want trust. They want transparency.”

Start Ethics Communication Early

At the Nature Conservancy, new employees receive a copy of the company’s code of conduct and training during orientation to start “an open dialogue.” The code is also posted on the company intranet.

Grace Wu de Plaza, deputy ethics and compliance officer for the nonprofit that has about 3,800 employees in 30 countries, said partnering with the internal communications team has been key. The organization blogs weekly on its intranet about ethics and compliance, and publishes information on the topic monthly in internal newsletters.

To measure effectiveness, it tracks hits to articles posted to its intranet that discuss ethics and compliance and that describe investigations of real-life violations and potential violations.

Articles about potential real-life violations are some of the most-read articles, de Plaza noted.

Tailor Ethics Message Globally

General Electric, with about 300,000 employees, does business in 170 countries—all of which have different compliance and regulatory schemes. That makes communicating globally about ethics “a huge challenge,” admitted Gary Sheffer, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for GE.

GE’s The Spirit & The Letter, a booklet of the company’s compliance policies, is available to the public online. It’s also translated into nearly 30 languages and communicated to employees at the local level, not “dictated down from the top,” Sheffer said.

Different cultures have different ways of understanding integrity and the best way to address ethical behavior. GE works to tailor the delivery of ethics communications and training, such as through haikus in Japan and a Bollywood production in India.

Having a strong cadre of employees with an ethics and compliance mindset and ability to spread the word is key for the global corporation.

“In the different markets, you’ve got to hire really good people,” Sheffer said. “The search for global compliance and ethics talent is huge for us, and we put a lot of effort into that.”

GE Publishes Disciplinary Actions

Sheffer joined GE in 1999, and his job has changed dramatically since Internet usage became widespread. Each day, around 4,000 new comments about the company are posted online.

“Democratization, really, of reputation is that everyone has access to your reputation,” Sheffer said. To show that GE values integrity, GE publishes on its website the disciplinary actions it takes when employees are found to have violated ethical or compliance principles. Sheffer noted that highlighting examples of mistakes made and how they were corrected “are the most powerful stories you can tell globally.”

Program in Action

While a top sponsor of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, GE was pressured by advocacy groups to make a statement about the protests of Russia’s laws restricting gay-rights activities, and the company took a stand, Sheffer said.

GE’s corporate citizenship tenet includes a core human rights component that states that the company “promotes respect for fundamental human rights and views them as a key component of responsible corporate citizenship.” The company also has a robust LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employee population and an active LGBT affinity group. Adding to the complexity, the company does business in Russia and wanted to continue its relationship with the International Olympic Committee, which organizes the games.

In numerous media reports, company officials said: “We expect that the IOC would uphold human rights in any aspect of the Games.”

Sheffer said GE spoke out “because of our employees. We talk inside the company about being a big proponent of and believer in human rights and we respect everyone regardless of any differentiation. And if we can’t say something outside the company that reflects that, we’re not being credible and authentic and consistent to our people.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


Choose from dozens of free webcasts on the most timely HR topics.

Register Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect