Beyond the Buzzwords: 5 Questions to Ask as You Build an Ethical Workplace Culture

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.


The words “culture,” “ethics,” and “leadership” are often thrown around loosely in today’s business climate. Everyone wants a healthy and “positively contagious” culture. Everyone wants to establish and follow ethical business practices and ways of living. Everyone wants to lead well.

But why? And what does it really mean to have an ethical workplace culture?

The danger of any buzzword or common quest is that the reasons why it matters in the first place can easily be lost in the bustle of our lives and the initiatives we put in place to make these things so.

It’s About Intention, Not a Formula

I’m asked regularly for the “list” of what it takes to build a healthy, ethical culture. People want the seven-point framework, the formula they can follow to create a cutting-edge healthy culture as if by magic. But it doesn’t work that way.

While lists are great — and I happily provide them — I also make it clear that a list is only as good as the intentions, energy, and presence (what I call the “IEP”) of the people and organizations implementing it.

We have to be clear on our intentions: Why are we doing this? We have to be conscious of the energy we bring to the effort and to how we show up. We have to be present, in terms of both the culture that already exists and the culture we are each actively creating with everything we say and do.

As simple as this all may sound, the rocket science of the matter lies in the discipline necessary to pay attention to all these things. We need to go slow to go fast. That way, we can craft culture and leadership thoughtfully, intentionally, congruently, and sustainably.

For more expert HR insights, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

The 5 Guiding Questions

So with that preamble, here are five questions to ask yourself as you work to build an ethical and authentic culture. You may have already asked yourself some version of these. Wonderful — now go deeper. Don’t take the answers for granted. Look at the answers under your answers. Make them personal. Go there and see what shows up.

  1. What is our intention behind building our culture? Why do we want to build it? What culture do we want? Why?
  2. What is our intention for having a defined set of ethics? Why are ethics important? How will they inform our activities? How will we know what the right ethics are for us?
  3. What ethics, behaviors, and practices feel most important to us? If we’re successful in creating a healthy, authentic culture and leadership environment, what ethics, behaviors, and practices will be most important to honor?
  4. How am I personally modeling these behaviors and practices? How is my leadership team modeling them? Culture and leadership start with each of us individually, and they are contagious. Whether I’m the CEO or an entry-level admin, I have power and influence here. That influence starts with how I show up, what I model, and what I put out there. So what am I modeling? What does my leadership team model? What kind of contagious are we all? Start there.
  5. When you have these practices and structures in place, what will you have? What is the intended outcome and result? This is another version of the first question, but it will help you take your thinking deeper once you’ve answered the first four — so dig in. Find the true end result and the win you are looking for. What will it look like? What will it feel like? What will people say? What will be possible for your organization, for your results, for your clients and customers, and for you?

The quality of our questions defines the quality of our lives and the impacts we have. The quality and clarity of our intentions defines the right questions. When we’re clear on our intentions, everything else follows. A person or organization with a clear intention is more positively, powerfully, and usefully contagious than a person or organization without. So get clear.

Building culture — unintentionally or half-intentionally — for the sake of building culture or checking it off the list will only take you so far. That culture won’t last, and you’ll be onto the next initiative/band-aid before you know it. Moreover, that culture will not be compelling or inspiring for those who are part of it.

Instead of rushing through the process, give yourself time to be thoughtful. Build your ethical culture from a place of clear intentions, clean energy, conscious presence, and meaningful questions. That’s far more likely to lead to the accountability and results you really want.

Anese Cavanaugh is the founder of the IEP Method and author of Contagious You: Unlock Your Power to Influence, Lead, and Create the Impact You Want.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Anese Cavanaugh is devoted to helping people show up and bring their best selves to the table in order to create significant positive impact in their lives. She is the creator of the IEP Method (Intentional Energetic Presence), an advisor and thinking partner to leaders and organizations around the world, and author of "Contagious Culture: Show Up, Set the Tone, and Intentionally Create an Organization That Thrives (McGraw Hill, 11/15)." As a leading voice on intention, energy, and presence in leadership and culture, she helps people unlock greater leadership potential, collaborate more inspiringly, create more openly, intuit more bravely, and lead more joyfully and effectively.