A Closing Perspective From the Authors – The Decency Code: The Leader's Path to Building Integrity and Trust


Congratulations. However you got here, whether you read the book, skimmed the book, or just came directly to this page, we hope the topic has been of interest and helpful to you as you explore this ever-more-important subject.

Despite jail terms and fines, a tougher legal environment, thousands of books on leadership, university courses on ethics, multiple “great place to work” lists, and theories on what it takes to create vibrant corporate cultures, significant progress on the goal of building decent workplaces—places in which employees feel proud to bring their whole selves—is difficult to see. Misconduct continues; workplace incivility continues. And if we are making progress on employee engagement, it can be best described as baby steps. Our book, we hope, offers some practical steps to the goal of decent workplaces we all desire.

Throughout this book, we emphasized concepts of civility, respect, and decency, rather than regulation alone, as the antidote to disrespect and disengagement. Decency is more than just “tone at the top” (as critical as leadership from the top is), but tone at all levels at all times in all contexts, especially when it is thought that no one is watching. These attributes in turn are the main ingredients of an ethical, compliant, and productive culture.

We selected the term “decency” for this book because we wanted a word that reflects our view that small, constructive institutionalized gestures build great companies, families, and communities. It follows that developing and enabling a civil environment helps fortify a company against misconduct. By fertilizing the foundation of corporate cultures with decencies, there’s a likelihood that real engagement will improve, and a better than even chance that compliance initiatives can more easily take root.

Decencies serve a culture by adding impact to ethical standards. Leaders play a prominent role in this process. When the “little things”—small yet meaningful gestures—take hold, they create stories and traditions that can enrich a culture. They can be felt by everyone. They are a unifying set of experiences that coalesce into resilient, value-driven cultures, resistant to the corner-cutting that is preliminary to serious misconduct. It turns out that “little things” have a much bigger impact than we generally imagine and often last a long time.

We also observe that groups of small decencies tend to have a synergistic impact. That is, when you add the small decencies together, their impact is much larger than expected.

A leader’s commitment to a civil and enabling business environment is essential. Small decencies—gestures that are visible, actionable, and scalable—are part of that commitment. Woven into the fabric of a corporate culture, the following acts make the concepts of respect and integrity more vivid and palpable: leadership accessibility and transparency; nonfinancial rewards (“psychic income”) such as exhibiting trust and handwritten notes of thanks or job-well-done; downsizing with empathy, sympathy, sensitivity, candor, honesty, and continuously constructive communication when downsizing is necessary; banning executive pomposity and pretentious perks and demonstrating the power of humility.

Every absence of decency where decency is needed dilutes the culture of an organization. The stories that a company tells about itself are critical. Institutionalized decency gives everyone in the organization important clues about what its values are and how committed it is to the expression of these values.

We believe there is cause for optimism. After all, an ethics industry has been born, complete with a global association, the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE). Important new roles have been created: chief compliance officer, chief ethics officer, chief corporate social responsibility officer. There are fewer “celebrity CEOs.” Some corporate “bad guys” are paying their dues in jail. Character, integrity, and humility are still valued leadership attributes. Business ethics is beginning to work its way into major business school curricula and MBA programs. Reputation impact is a growing corporate priority. Beyond Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Places to Work, there’s Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies, Ethisphere magazine’s World’s Most Ethical Companies, Trust Across America’s America’s Top 10 Most Trustworthy Public Companies, and CRO Magazine’s American’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens.

Decency and Civility Powerfully Enrich a Culture

The role of decency and civility enriches and toughens a corporate culture. You could argue that it is exactly the goodwill built up by decencies that allows an organization to make it through the tough times.

Culture enrichment gives an organization sustainability and an employer-of-choice reputation, and, yes, it even promotes regulatory compliance. Cultural enrichment is about getting a uniformly positive response to the question, “How does it feel to live in this environment and be shaped by it?”

The new world of work is about speed, agility, work-life balance, virtuality, globalization, multigenerational workforces, artificial intelligence, nontraditional work styles, CSR/sustainability, and safety and security. Each of these workplace components requires culture-focused ethical and engaging leadership. Global competition for increasingly scarce talent has challenged the best of companies. Workplaces that have enabling cultures where innovation is stimulated, where performance is recognized, and where employee engagement thrives will be the winners.

Leadership with the Right Stuff Will Be the Key

The well-studied leadership attributes—vision, courage, trust, optimism, inspiration, humility, communication—are important. But more is required to succeed as a leader of the future. Leaders must also be authentic, adaptable, globally savvy, environmentally savvy, socially savvy (EQ), compliance-savvy, and future-focused. A decencies tool kit will be needed that can detect, prevent, remove, or deter avoidable management trip wires. These are those management fumbles, stumbles, and bungles that make people scratch their heads and triggers the question, “What were you thinking?”

Used effectively, this tool kit and the other attributes we’ve mentioned can help inoculate a culture and its management against misconduct and incivility.

We are especially captivated by leaders who inspire, create visions, and then transform vision into action:

•   The late Herb Kelleher, founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines. “The important thing is to take the bricklayer and make him understand that he’s building a home, not just laying bricks.”

•   The late Warren Bennis. “Leadership may be the greatest performing art of all—the only one that creates institutions of lasting value . . . institutions that can endure long after the stars who envisioned them have left the theater.”

•   Daniel Goleman. “Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision or powerful ideas; but the reality is much more primal. Great leadership works through emotions.”

•   Charles Schwab. “I want our employees to see themselves not as workers at a discount brokerage firm but rather as custodians of their customers’ financial dreams.”

Strength in Humility

Great leaders see the strength in humility, sharing the limelight and catching people doing things right. They have a passion for stamping out demotivators that can suck life and energy out of an organization. They make room for innovators and give them permission to fail.

And during turbulent times, great leaders avoid at all cost evidence and symbols of hypocrisy or mixed messages. They exhibit an unflagging sense of purpose. They’re accessible, on deck, listening to people, being visible or accessible everywhere, even off-hours. They are promise keepers. They tell people what they know and what they don’t know, and they convey a sense of hope. It’s these habits that foster and build employee engagement. These are leaders with integrity.

Understanding What Employee Engagement Means

Joe Murphy, one of the true gurus of the global compliance community, in a private conversation with the authors reminds us that the key to understanding how to make employee engagement work is understanding the logical differences between how management views employee engagement and how employees view employee engagement. Most employees look at their work through the prism of their home life—including getting home on time. They work to live. Management from middle to top increasingly tends to look at work through the prism of the work that needs to be done—frankly, how to get more done in the limited time that employees are available. In today’s business world the more successful managers become, the more their life is determined by the work to be done, excluding most other factors in their lives, even family life.

The leader who creates engagement understands the home and family orientation of employees. That leader tells employees what they want to know, don’t know, need to know, and should know before they have to know these things. Advance information like this builds trust. The engaging leader listens, is accessible, and helps employees better understand how to explain over the supper table how their work relates to their family and home life. Engaged employees feel part of an organization whose leaders understand and value the relationship between work, family, and home life.

Implicit Bias Is Better Understood

These days, implicit bias is at the root of much of what creates problems in the workplace. To control implicit bias, we’re learning to name the behaviors of concern. Unconscious bias contributes to the unfair treatment of minority groups in the workplace because individuals with power are generally not aware of their biases. Explicit bias is often acknowledged and sometimes defended. Even the act of denying that explicit bias is operating in the moment acknowledges that the bias is real.

An ethical and civil culture is the sum of the tangible, homegrown, specific behaviors and time-honored traditions that form the fabric of an organization, help ensure its sustainability, and help reduce its vulnerability. It’s one way of saying, “That’s how we do things around here.” Another term for these behaviors is “small decencies.” When C-suite leaders tell us, “That works for me,” we’ll know we’ve arrived!

The Future Is Watching

As Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her article “How to Find a Good Leader,” says (with “he” intended to mean both “he” and “she”), “A leader is aware he is the object of many eyes. This puts a responsibility on him to act in a certain way—with respect for his own dignity and yours. Even if he’s not in the mood, he must uphold standards of presentation. Children are watching and taking cues. That means the future is watching.”1

Two of the most important leadership characteristics are integrity and a sense of purpose. In a turbulent world, effective leadership acts as a stabilizer. Decency, we have argued in this book, is the attribute that controls the thermostat for a corporate culture. Decency can only develop in an environment of trust. Jim Lukaszewski has a simple definition of trust: the absence of fear. Therefore, fear is the absence of trust. People who trust will follow, and every leader knows it is committed followers who will help them accomplish the goals they aspire to achieve.

People who love their jobs have a sense of purpose. They feel valued and are energized to contribute thoughtfully to the success of their teams and organization. Employees are looking for meaning. Part of the responsibility of managers and leaders alike is to see and hear each employee’s unique purpose and values, help them develop a plan to achieve their goals, and foster relationships built on trust and honest feedback. When leaders see and acknowledge their employees as whole people, whose primary concerns are about home and family first, employee engagement becomes an enrichment of the human experience.

We started this segment suggesting that the progress corporate America has been making on the path to decency-driven employee engagement is best described as baby steps. Maybe so. But we can make the entire journey that way.

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The Decency Code leads to a multitude of pathways, all of which end in decency, civility, and integrity. While it’s true that decency in many respects is a personal matter, what is abundantly clear from our experience is that, in organizations of any kind, leadership drives the beliefs, behaviors, and expectations of everyone else. The organization that has made its way toward decency is the organization that facilitates and is happy to see employees have productive, inspiring, and useful private lives. The organization whose culture works to overcome the barriers to decency and aligns more and more with The Decency Code is a culture where people want to work.

Thank you for joining us on this journey. We’re easy to find if you’d like to talk further or have us talk to others about what you’ve learned from spending this time with us.

Steve Harrison
New York, New York

James E. Lukaszewski
America’s Crisis Guru®
Minneapolis, Minnesota