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Why Integrity Is Never Easy

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Browse through the mission, vision, or value statements that corporations post on their websites, and you'll notice that almost every company includes a statement about integrity. And if you Google the following examples, you'll find that many companies use these stock phrases:

  • "We combine integrity with excellence..."
  • "We act with integrity in all we do."
  • "We hold honesty and integrity as our guiding principles."
  • "We are proud of the integrity, sincerity and transparency our employees demonstrate every day."

Morally upright statements, right? But have you ever wondered why they are needed in the first place? After all, integrity should be the basic building block for doing business: Nobody wants to get involved with a company that lies, cheats, and tricks its customers; nor do people want to work for a company (or a manager) that is dishonest and disingenuous with employees. In other words, integrity should be a given, without the need to trumpet its existence. As one senior executive said to me, "Integrity is a threshold characteristic for our people -- if they don't have it, they aren't here."

Yet it's not that simple, for two reasons: First, is the innate human ability to rationalize behavior. For example, if you ask high school students whether or not it is right to cheat, most will say that cheating is wrong. Yet research suggests that as many as 95% of such students admit to having engaged in some form of cheating. Most of the time, this involves a specific incident where the students had to make a choice. In hindsight, the students justify the choice as "not really cheating," "no big deal," or something that "everyone else does." In other words, they rationalize their situational behavior, and this way they can still consider themselves to be honest.

The reality is that all of us (and not just students) face integrity-based choices on a regular basis. Do we tell customers about all of the warts on our products? Do we reveal everything to a prospective buyer during due diligence? Is it acceptable to hide certain aspects of our background in a résumé? What's considered a legitimate expense on a business trip? How much of billable time is really devoted to a client? How honest should I be when giving feedback to my boss or subordinate? None of these situations have clear answers -- and no corporate policy can cover every contingency. As a result, no matter what choice we make, we can convince ourselves that it was made with integrity.

And that leads to the second reason why integrity is so difficult: Everyone defines integrity differently. Falsifying information to one person might be considered an acceptable business practice to another. This is further exacerbated by differences in culture -- for example in some business cultures people are expected to openly do favors for each other, while in other cultures those favors would be considered bribes.

The power of rationalization and the difficulties of definition reveal integrity as a subject that is neither easy nor simple. That's why solely relying on compliance functions, policies, rules, and audits -- the integrity police -- is usually inadequate. These mechanisms guard against gross and clearly illegal violations of integrity standards, but they do not deal with the integrity choices that we face every day. These choices require personal judgment.

In some ways the value statements about integrity are meant to remind us that integrity is not just a corporate responsibility, but a personal one as well. If you are a manager, you can apply these values by setting aside time with your team to share integrity dilemmas and choices and discuss the thinking behind individuals' decisions. Make sure these meetings take place in a "safe" environment, where people can openly share their thoughts. If you hold these discussions regularly, you'll gradually get beyond the rationalizations and develop more common definitions of what is acceptable and what is not -- which is the essence of an integrity culture.

What's your experience with making integrity more than just a word in your company's mission statement?

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Review