Integrity – “doing the right thing when nobody is looking”

There’s a new research report and practical guide out, on promoting integrity within organisations. Last Tuesday I went with my colleague Margaret Naylor to the launch of ‘Real Integrity’. I am up to Chapter 4, so this is first thoughts. It was a good evening – with Jim Baxter and other authors present from IDEA at the University of Leeds, Elizabeth Higgs from ICAEW (sponsor) and speakers from Marks and Spencers and elsewhere. The title of this blog post is something said by one of the speakers (Charlie Dawson of the Foundation). (Download the briefing and full report.)

The researchers have identified a four-fold categorisation of individual and organisational integrity: wholeness of character (being consistent in what is said and what is done); identity (a recognisable ethos/ethical brand); ethical values; and standing for something (this requires awareness of the wider social context). Consistency, trust, openness, fairness are words that come up a lot.

At the launch, several people referred to the shock of events such as the collapse of Enron, MP expenses scandals and the current crisis in banking. These sometimes sudden exposures of corruption shake our belief in the integrity of organisations, and also show how important it is. ‘Intuitively’, the report says, ‘integrity is perhaps most easily identified either when it is absent or when it is severely tested’ (p5).

The research took a really interesting approach to exploring the concept of organisational integrity – the process included giving interviewees vignettes to discuss, with descriptions of people behaving in particular ways. The researchers asked for comments as to whether the protagonists in these vignettes  were showing integrity or not. For instance, a Nazi who puts his cause above his family; someone who overhears professional misconduct and does not report it. An online survey was completed by enough organisations to enable a quantitative analysis of, for instance, the relationship between ‘perceived integrity’ and size of organisation. Small organisations with 1-10 employees score highest for perceived integrity, with larger organisations appearing to have less – though intriguingly, integrity appears to begin to increase again in very large organisations.

Leadership comes out as a key force for integrity: ‘tone from the top’, the consistent use of fair and transparent procedures, fostering a culture where ethical behaviour is valued and encouraged, and where ethics can be openly discussed. HR also plays an important role, though there was passionate debate about this in the question time. Is HR primarily about performance? (Or perhaps compliance?) Or is it about instilling and enacting values and ensuring fair, open processes in recruitment, promotion, grievance and more? See page 5 in this 2009 CIPD publication – ‘There is a debate on the need for HR to play a greater role as ‘chief integrity officer’.

Having just been looking at codes (see last post) I was interested to read the definitions of integrity that Real Integrity sets out, such as ‘following the spirit as well as the letter of the law’ (p5). The authors make the interesting point that integrity cannot come from adhering to rules for their own sake. So scrutiny, legislation and enforcement may persuade people to be honest, but they do not guarantee integrity. Although they note the importance of integrity in the professions, the authors don’t comment on the fact that such professions are licensed, and that this gives the professional codes of ethics more bite.

It made a lot of sense to me. Since the launch, I’ve been pondering what my behaviour is when I am alone, and what motivates or conditions what I do when no one is looking… The motivation for integrity is going to be addressed in the second half of the report, which I will read over the coming days. I think the publication overall is certain to help us at Bradford College as we review organisational ethics and look for next steps.


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