Editor's Note: The following feature was published in the September/October issue of PorkNetwork. Click here to view it and other features from the issue.

Roger, an ethical individual, was in the barn last week with a co-worker, Sam, who was in a hurry to get sows in the farrowing crates so he could leave work early. It was his anniversary and he and his wife had plans. He was moving the sows too quickly and was much more aggressive than he should have been, according to the farm’s policies. The next day, as Sam was visiting with the manager, he talked about how careful he was in putting the sows in their respective pens, and how important it was to have animal well-being as a top priority.

Roger wondered what would be the ethical thing to do. On one hand he could ignore what he saw and just let it go, rationalizing that it was not his business. Or, he could confront Sam and encourage him to reconsider his actions, suggesting that following the ethics policy of his company would create better consequences. Or, lastly, Roger could comply with the company’s guidelines and report the ethical lapse. 

The question isn’t about what Roger did. The question to consider is: “What would you do?”

If you chose the third option—the one that is expected as part of compliance with most organizational ethics guidelines—you would be labeled a “whistleblower.” Who wants to be called that? Negative words from childhood come to mind when someone is called a whistleblower. Yet, if your company or association is committed to creating a culture of ethical behavior, the term “whistleblower” is the number one key to ethical success.

How Can That Be?
Statistics indicate that 42 percent of the time, someone “tipping off” an employer about an ethical lapse or potential fraud is the No. 1 way companies maintain ethics and prevent fraud. Amazing as it may seem, internal staff members are the best enforcers for maintaining ethical behavior.

Most people are amazed the number is that high; all too often we want to look the other way, or are afraid to confront those committing ethical blunders. It’s easy to understand the hesitancy; many people are afraid to rock the boat. Often, what we fail to realize is that the person committing an ethical blunder is putting the company in danger. So, how do we create a culture of ethical actions? 

Unethical Choices Never Start Large
The “Unethical Continuum” is a natural progression of what many call a “slippery slope” of human action. This progression allows small infractions to go unnoticed or unreported until the day people or companies are in the midst of a full-fledged ethics disaster. Sam didn’t “intend” to act unethically; he was in a hurry and wasn’t necessarily thinking about his actions. His challenge was figuring out who would be responsible. The challenge with his ethical choice was a common problem: Rationalization. 

Three Components of Human Behavior
 When an individual makes a choice, any choice, there are typically three components that come together that allow a choice to be made and move forward: (1) need, (2) opportunity and (3) rationalization. While as employers we have little control of an individual’s need, we do have some level of control over opportunity to make ethical choices and how one might rationalize behavior. 

Know What Ethical Behavior Looks Like
Large companies have clearly drafted ethics and compliance policies that employees are expected to understand and follow. The smaller the company, the less likely there will be a clearly written ethics policy. But large or small, the challenge for all companies is communication about what is acceptable and unacceptable. Creating an ethics policy and training it effectively are keys to exposing rationalization and improving ethical behavior within an organization. 

Train, Train, Train! 
Let’s be honest: most ethics training is boring. It centers on the rules and never gets to the heart of what motivates human behavior. And, frankly, if we don’t understand what factors start folks on that slippery slope down into the unethical realm, then we miss the opportunity to change behavior before it is too late. Effective training should move beyond just what’s included in the ethics and compliance policy and cover (a) why people make unethical choices (b) what can be done to prevent unethical choices and (c) what motivates our behavior. Telling someone what to do is far less effective than helping them see the value in consistently making ethical choices.  

Encourage Accountability. 
What keeps people between the ethical lines is shared accountability. We are our brother’s keeper. If one is to be kept within the ethical lines then we must not only have the road signs (ethics policy), but the practical means to correct behavior. As stated earlier, 42 percent of the time, ethical blunders are reported by co-workers or those who witness the issue. And while “whistleblower” carries a negative connotation, the reality is someone who cares enough to call “foul” to unethical actions is the most valuable ethics asset and organization has. 

When in Doubt, Do the Right Thing
Ethical missteps are all the same; they will eventually lead to a negative outcome. Little infractions that go undetected or unreported often lead to larger infractions until “unethical” becomes “illegal.” Perhaps we should reframe or replace the word “whistleblower” with “ethical partner.” One thing is certain: ethical choices are empowered choices and that is certainly one critical component of business success.

Editor’s Note: Chuck Gallagher is the president of the Ethics Resource Group and an international expert in business ethics. He provides training, presentations and consultation with associations and companies on ethics and creating ethical cultures. Information can be found at http://chuckgallagher.com or via e-mail at chuck@chuckgallagher.com.