What do these six things all have in common?

  1. Statesmanship,
  2. Professionalism,
  3. Integrity,
  4. Systemic activity,
  5. Serviceability, and
  6. Accountability

They are the six core values of Israel’s civil service Code of Ethics. Taken together, they therefore serve as the ethos, or bedrock of ethics, which can be defined as the core values. From these values,  more detailed etiquette is derived to determine appropriate behavior within the organization, and outside of working hours, when certain behaviors might affect the organization.

Nearly every day, the media reports something that raises fundamental questions of ethics: whether or not individuals have behaved properly. This raises a host of ethical questions (informed by underlying sets of values)  such as: How do we judge whether one has behaved appropriately? Which rules apply? Is ethics not a subjective matter? Developing a culture of organizational ethics can go a long way towards answering these thorny and critical questions within organizations.

Practicing ethics can relate to anything from social relations, a particular professional field – like medical ethics – to a particular organization, such as ethics in the IDF. Implementing an organizational ethical culture must begin with considering the organization’s ethos, or in other words, the organization and employees’ fundamental world views and values. The ethos is a powerful tool for creating a common language among employees, and for understanding the goals of the organization. An ethos is first created by way of behavior and personal example. Sometimes it exists only in theory, and sometimes it is put forth in documents called vision, mission, etc. The ethos is essential for the proper functioning of the organization. A positive ethos is a magnet for attracting quality employees and a means of improving the overall organizational productivity and output.

Israeli philosopher and linguist Asa Kasher views professional ethics as "an established set of perceptions regarding the practical ideal of the behavior, in a professional framework, which is a defined framework of special human activity." In this process, the values and guiding lines for the personal and professional behavior of the employee are established.

The responsibility for an organization’s ethical culture rests with its leadership. A culture in which its members are guided by a clear set of shared, explicit values that orient and inform behavior - a culture that engages in ethical practice - serves not only to improve employee productivity, but to help the organization realize its mission. Organizations with highly elevated ethical behavior have more satisfied employees. That is why it is essential to promote ethics and focus on a values-driven culture in the organization.

For example, dozens of etiquette rules were derived from those six core values of the Israeli civil service.

When speaking of organizational ethics, it is once again the leadership that sets the values and etiquette. However, this should be undertaken hand-in-hand with employee representatives. The involvement of the organization’s employees in the development of an ethical code increases employee identification with the organization and reduces opposition to the new norms. This is the process of formulating a systemic concept of the organizational code of ethics.

As part of the ethics development and implementation process, the concepts of ethos, ethics, and ethical dilemma are explained to the organization’s employees. An “ethical dilemma,” is a situation in which one is required to take action, choosing from several possible courses of action, including abstaining from action – any of which entails some kind of loss or a significant compromise of one or more of the important values. Ethical dilemmas are the nuts and bolts of civic service, and the role of the organization's leadership is to teach employees to deal with such dilemmas, and to train managers to understand the employees’ perspectives.

The process requires a decision whether to establish disciplinary rules that include enforcement measures, or alternatively, a professional ethics code aimed at improving productivity as an outcome of an educational-training process, which is a “softer” method to gain the employee’s cooperation.

Regarding the development of ethics in an organization, it is worth noting that ethics is not a subjective concept, as society observes the behavior of an individual and "judges" it socially. At the same time, it is important to elucidate the differences between ethics and law: ethical conduct, as a rule, should respect the law, but ethical obligations are broader in scope, applying to that which has not been regulated by legislation, and to cases where the law has left the outcome to discretion. There's a phrase in Hebrew "naval birshut ha-Torah," a scoundrel who follows the letter but not the spirit of the law. This is an important concept to remember when discussing the need to limit and restrain the powers of public authorities.

It is essential to equip managers and employees with the proper toolkit to determine whether certain behavior is ethical using common models in this field, including:

  1. The prohibitive approach – emphasizing what is not allowed or the action itself, reflected in the words of Hillel the Elder, “do not do to others what you do not want done to you,” and in the imperative of Immanuel Kant: “Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
  2. The utilitarian approach or consequentialism – emphasizing the result of an action, reflected in John Stuart Mill’s philosophy to which the ethical action is one that increases the general pleasure and lessens its pain, and the ethical nature of an action is determined by the extent to which it was useful or harmful to others.
  3. Those deliberating which of these aforementioned approaches to take can adopt a case-by-case approach, in which an ethical action is one that is proven to have been the best course of action considering all the circumstances.

The development and implementation of an organizational ethical culture ought to be cemented with an ethical code, such that it includes values and rules of conduct, and be overseen by a dedicated entity for the assimilation – and revision – of the ethical code in the organization and for consulting on ethical dilemmas. For example, if an organization sets a number of basic values, it can choose a value to discuss once every two months to deepen the understanding of its essence and relevance to the organization. In addition, employees should be encouraged to seek guidance in cases of ethical dilemmas, to remember to think before they act, to assume that they bear responsibility for their actions, and that all their actions might be made public.

The goal is to effectively implement ethical thinking in the organization as part of its work flows, to formulate policy and decision-making processes to ensure that ethics are a living and organic part of the regular functioning of an organization.

Get To Know The Author

WIF Alum Mike Blass (Class 14) was Chairman of the Committee for the Recommendation of a New Ethical Code for the Civil Service and member of the Ethical Code Development Team for the Wexner Foundation's Alumni Community. He teaches Public Law and Ethics in the Federmann School of Public Policy and Governance at the Hebrew University.