Collaborative Leadership Blog

Ethics! Ethics! Ethics!

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.  –Warren Buffett–

Wealthy parents get caught bribing prestigious universities to get their kids admission; Boeing’s 737 Max 8 jets kill over 300 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia due to “optional” safety equipment; Purdue Pharma settles with Oklahoma for $270 M as it continues to be held accountable for 50,000 deaths a year from opioid abuse; Wells Fargo continues its aggressive sales culture in spite of a $1B fine from the Fed for signing up 5 million customers for credit cards without their knowledge; Duke University is fined $212M for data fraud in the Medical School. These are just some of the recent headlines of what seems to be an unending spate of ethical scandals. This is on top of the Equifax date breach of 145 million citizens’ privacy, Facebook/Cambridge Analytica’s breach of 57 million accounts, or the growing list of men who have sexually harassed or assaulted women in spite of #MeToo. Will this ethical corruption ever stop? When will leaders and their companies ever learn that ethical conduct is the cornerstone of ay successful business or leadership? Cutting corners is not acceptable.

On the other hand, most companies do operate ethically. Ethisphere has been monitoring ethical corporate behavior for about 15 years; their 2019 list “Most Ethical Companies” includes 128 companies. Some of the criteria used in their ratings include: (1) Leaders model ethical behavior; (2) Workers are responsible and accountable for their actions and the actions of others; (3) There is no fear of retribution if workers speak up; (4) Leaders communicate the importance of integrity in decision-making. (Source:

Gallup’s trust index in 2018 only gave big business a 25% score. If we are ever going to restore trust and confidence in ethical leadership, it will require a range of actions:

  • Starts at the Top: Leadership needs to make a conscious choice that the company will operate ethically and then model that behavior consistently
  • Culture of No Fear: There needs to be both psychological and physical safety in the workplace—freedom from fear of abuse, harassment, discrimination, and intimidation; and when people speak up, there is no fear of retribution
  • Culture of Transparency: Openness and transparency, especially at the top, produce trust, confidence, and credibility
  • Zero Tolerance Policies: If the company is serious about ethics, unethical conduct, sexual harassment, racial, gender or sexual orientation discrimination need to be addressed with policies of zero tolerance; a culture of accountability is essential to success
  • Vigilance: Discussing corporate ethics needs to be an ongoing focus of executive decision-making, communications with staff, trainings, and at all levels of dialogue across all levels

If we are to turn the tide on the culture of corruption, it is up to each of us to create leadership cultures that are ethical, so that the workforce can be their best selves and do their best work.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616