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BusinessMay 9, 2022

You think you operate an ethical workplace, but do you?

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Draft legislation designed to help tackle modern slavery is out for consultation. Here’s what it means for CEOs at every level of business. 

Most employers and employees set out each day to do the best they can. In my experience, few are determined to act improperly or unethically. That said, it happens, in ways that are often not overt – or in ways that are justified or explained as “something we have always done”.

We’re doing OK. In fact, New Zealand ranks at the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index, a measure of which countries are avoiding (or adequately dealing with) damaging behaviours like bribery and corruption. At number one out of 180 countries ranked by Transparency International, this is great news.

But it doesn’t mean we’re immune to bad practices emerging. Maintaining an ethical workplace doesn’t just happen. It requires effort. If passed, MBIE’s draft legislation will put the onus onto employers to maintain an ethical workplace by actively preventing any bad behaviour and reporting on it.

“Wilful blindness” will no longer be an excuse for ongoing coercion, harassment, manipulation, or enslavement. Here’s what businesses will need to address.

Lead with integrity

What matters most when it comes to establishing and maintaining high levels of ethical behaviour is the tone from the top. How management shows up sends clear signals to other employees. The aim is to “walk the talk” with employees and hold leaders responsible for their actions.

Globally, more and more companies are beginning to measure and reward performance on the basis of ethical behaviour. Some of those reported to be linking environmental, social and governance (ESG) outcomes to executive compensation include companies like BP, Danone, Pepsico and Unilever.

Of course, there are also direct costs to the business of being associated with unethical behaviour in terms of fines, director liability and the destruction of an organisation’s number one asset – its reputation. When trust is broken, it can be nigh on impossible to repair. Nobody wants to shop at or work for a business known to be turning a blind eye to bullying, harassment or corruption or other examples of poor labour practices.

Expect the best

Be clear with employees about the behaviour you expect, and what is and isn’t acceptable. Codes of ethical conduct are now becoming more widely used to set out matters such as receiving of gifts, inducements or sharing of information. Make sure you’re clear about how staff should ask for any approvals before doing something that might be considered a grey area.

Give them the tools

Training is key to making sure employees understand ethical expectations – not just once, but consistently. Repeat regularly, update with any policy or legislative changes and make sure there’s a particular focus when onboarding new staff. Ethical behaviour expectations should also be included in any “house rules” employees are required to commit to.

Engage often

With the advent of new tools aimed at giving employers a better understanding of the culture and how staff are feeling about the company, there’s the added benefit of being able to note any red flags that might be precursors to a decline in ethical behaviour. Properly designed and regularly deployed employee engagement surveys can help set a baseline of attitudes within the company.

Findings from such surveys can inform training needs as well as highlight areas of risk that need attention. The key to employees’ engagement is, again, trust. Any topline findings should be shared and discussed with all employees. Seek their views, too, on any remedial steps that could be taken. It demonstrates a willingness to be transparent.

Research what’s new

Increasingly, there are intuitive tech-driven tools, such as the Ethical VOICE platform launched last year by New Zealand insights company AskYourTeam, that allow more of a continuous view on workplace culture and labour practices. Ethical VOICE gives every single worker in an organisation, at every level of that organisation, the opportunity to speak freely and 100% anonymously on what’s really going on at work, using their smartphone.

It’s already been piloted within the horticulture sector, which has been a hotspot for unethical employment practices, with great success. Now, Ethical VOICE is being picked up by large scale New Zealand corporates, some of which operate factories offshore, to ensure that no stone is left unturned in identifying bad practice.

Tools like Ethical VOICE – Ulala is another early adopter of mobile based worker engagement – can help push information out to employees as well as a pull it back into the organisation. There are many benefits to this approach. Firstly, such rich data helps improve decision making and improve productivity. Secondly, employees who feel respected at work – who feel they can contribute and are listened to – enjoy a sense of ownership around what the company stands for and are better able to bring their own skills to bear.

Operating an ethical workplace is not only preferable, it’s critical. Human resource as a discipline is a lot more than just placing job ads and settling workplace issues – it’s understanding that employee engagement can act as a key driver, or indeed a key inhibitor, to business success.

Brent Wilton is a director of Tūhana Business and Human Rights Limited.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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