brainstorm

Discussions about ethics at work tend to focus on the negative. Notoriously unscrupulous companies like Enron and Theranos often come up. Researchers survey rates of bribery, sexual harassment, theft, and other misconduct.

Rarely do we discuss how ethics can inspire beautiful, transformative behavior. I’d like to change that.

Creating an “ethical workplace” isn’t just about minimizing misconduct. It’s also about maximizing empathetic and conscientious actions. An ethical workplace empowers people to envision and do good things that no law or job description compels them to do. The ethical workplace is a creative one.

To illustrate my assertion, I’d like to discuss an ethical recruiting practice we started at Widen: hiring employees with developmental disabilities. Although many companies could emulate us (and I hope they do), that’s not the primary point. Rather, I want to identify the steps that made this program so successful, in hopes that other HR leaders will use them to serve their workforces and communities.

Create Something — Even Though You Don’t Have To

Like many technology companies, Widen sponsors charitable causes and pays employees to volunteer. We also strive to recruit a diverse, skilled workforce. In 2015, though, our definition of “diversity” radically changed.

Community Support Network (CSN), a nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin, that mentors people with developmental disabilities, contacted Widen. They wondered if we would hire some of their clients. It would have been easy to say no on the grounds that we didn’t have any appropriate roles. Instead, we created some.

We first hired Andrew to serve as our popcorn manager. Andrew earned an hourly wage making popcorn and delivering it to employees. His peers at CSN designed double-sided green and red coasters, like the kind you find at a Brazilian steakhouse, so that Andrew could easily spot who wanted popcorn.

Soon, we hired more employees from CSN to clean and tidy rooms, care for plants, and much more. We didn’t start this program with any hope of a return on investment. Rather, our mission was to socially integrate members of the Madison community who normally are excluded and isolated. We underestimated the impact this would have on our workplace.

Embrace the Benefits of What You’ve Created

When you meet someone from a drastically different background than your own, how comfortable do you feel? Do you worry about accidentally saying or doing something offensive?

When CSN employees first joined Widen, we all tuned into that unspoken discomfort of not knowing what someone different thinks and believes. Most of us had never developed relationships with anyone who has Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or autism.

Unintentionally, the CSN program trained us in empathy, which improved our daily interactions with customers, partners, friends, and family. As we cultivated this skill, our CSN recruits became colleagues who joined us for meals, shopping trips, and concerts. They became teammates without asterisks. Not by our design, job applicants to Widen began to choose us over competing offers because of the CSN program.

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But that wasn’t the end. Our workplace culture turned a new corner when we realized that we’d been asking our CSN recruits for less than their true potential.

Take a Good Program Further Than You Thought It Could Ever Go

Widen employees have always developed new skills and pursued new areas of knowledge. Why couldn’t our CSN recruits do the same?

One of our CSN recruits, Kristina, began to take on more responsibility than we, or she, ever anticipated. We issued her a laptop so that she could perform administrative and data-entry tasks. Kristina openly shared that her reading skills were at an elementary level, but she was determined to improve them. She also struggled with tasks such as aiming the mouse and using the scroll bar.

If an employee struggled with, say, a new coding language, we’d invest in her learning that skill. Didn’t Kristina deserve the same? We hired a literacy tutor to work with Kristina and also brought in a computer instructor who introduced her to new equipment, like accessible mice. A year later, Kristina has made extraordinary progress in both literacy and computer use. It shows in her job performance.

Our CSN recruits had greater potential than anyone had allowed them to demonstrate. When our company needed to verify that none of our employees had committed Medicare fraud before taking on a certain client, it required digging through a database on a monthly basis. It was not something most employees would be eager to do.

Ray, one of our CSN employees, has a photographic memory. He remembers all the names of his coworkers and their family members. He also remembers how to spell complex last names. We coached Ray on how to perform this audit, and he flew through the job. He wasn’t just capable of doing the work. He did it better than any other Wideneer could have.

It got us thinking: Who else have we been underestimating, at Widen and beyond?

The Ethical Formula

Employees come to the workplace with their own ethical compasses, forged by their families, religions, educations, and experiences. To the best of our ability, we try to hire good people. In a workplace, though, ethics transcend the individual. An ethical culture empowers employees to do the right thing, even if that clashes with industry norms or cultural expectations.

In its highest form, ethical behavior is creative. It forms new relationships, communities, and realities. Although it is pure of an intended ROI, ethical action usually produces unintended blessings. When we embrace those blessings, we find the resolve to go even further.

I suspect that HR leaders all have ideas like partnering with CSN, but various forces conspire to keep these thoughts bottled up. My advice is to start having a new conversation about ethics. It’s not about stopping misconduct. It’s about doing the right thing, simply because you have the will and the means. If your business doesn’t do it, who will?

Heather Kleist is HR manager at Widen.

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