Encouraging Dialogue: How Managers Can Build and Maintain an Ethical Staff


By Megan Bierwirth, CPA
Content Writer at Surgent CPE

The ethics discussion has been on the rise in the last two decades, but it isn’t exactly a cut and dry issue since ethics always consider a choice.

Choice is often based on perception, and making the right choice in the face of real-life factors can easily become complicated. This is especially true for young staff who have generally only faced ethical discussions and decision in a safe, controlled classroom environment. As such, managers become the gatekeepers to ethics, and there are ways they can both build an ethical staff and maintain it in order to avoid ethical dilemmas.

Build an Ethical Staff by Seeking Out Honesty and Openness

All managers want staff who can do their job well, who don’t have to be told over and over to get something done or how to do it. But skills aren’t the end-all-be-all of good staff, and new hires can be just as valued for their character as their competency.

As a manager, it’s important to look for new hires who have an honest character. Resumes, cover letters and interviews will all give you a picture, but where the real tidbits of information are to be found are through references. Take the time to contact references, and consider asking the following questions:

  • Is the candidate unafraid to speak up?
  • Does the candidate readily ask questions?
  • Is the candidate an open communicator?
  • Does the candidate work well in groups?

Ethics breaches are often due to someone not knowing an answer while also being afraid to collaborate. Answers to these questions reveal whether or not a candidate has this character trait.

On the flip side, you need to go to real lengths to be upfront and honest about both the job description and the values and mission of both your team and your organization as a whole. Don’t tell a new hire, “we’re like a family” when everyone can’t wait to leave at 5pm. This is bad for two reasons: one, it creates the idea that telling white lies within the organization is okay, and two it will cause a great candidate to leave the organization if they aren’t seeing the initial testimony line up. Overall, it just creates a culture of mistrust.

Maintain an Ethical Staff Through Trust – And Knowing When It’s Being Tested

What makes for good teams is a sense of trust and empathy, and the familial feeling of openness. Humans enjoy social connections; nobody likes to sit alone at a desk all day and anyone who does is likely to bend compliance regulations because they’re unhappy.

To maintain an ethical staff, managers need to walk a tightrope of creating a positive social environment while also encouraging productivity. If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Office, you know this isn’t a walk in the park.

So, what’s a manager to do?

Managers need to realize trust is the foundation of any good relationship, and one of the biggest ways to prove to staff you’re trustworthy is by truly listening. This doesn’t mean you have to sit down with each staff member once a week and get their feedback, although it would definitely build good rapport, but you should listen to concerns and let staff know immediately and consistently that you’re available if someone needs to talk.

A manager who listens knows staff birthdays, realizes the need for breaks, and knows when encouragement is necessary. She can tell when a client’s demands are causing her team to be overworked, and she can see when an ethical dilemma presents itself. By actively listening and encouraging dialogue within staff, managers can build a culture based on trust, where people feel comfortable reaching out if they need help, no matter the circumstances.

However, as we all know, trust goes both ways. How can a manager build trust in her staff? By letting them prove themselves. Managers should make it clear from the beginning they are always available to answer questions and collaborate, and let new staff have as much free reign as possible. A new team member who can tell she’s trusted and always has someone to talk to will have respect for her manager.

Lastly, a manager can showcase trust and respect for her team by not tolerating an abuse of those values. There needs to be real follow-through for ethical misconduct, and an up-front idea that the mistreatment of co-workers, culture, or rules will lead to dismissal.

Being in the middle means managers have more power in the organization than any other person when it comes to ethics. They work with staff on a day-to-day basis, and they present the culture of the organization both to their staff and to their superiors. By building and maintaining an ethical staff, managers can truly create organizations that live their values and change the world.

Megan Bierwirth, CPA, is a Content Writer for Surgent CPE, a leader in continuing professional education (CPE) for CPAs and other financial professionals. She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2013 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Accounting.


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