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Business Integrity: A Culture Compass
September 17, 2019
by Eric Stenman
Growing up, you probably heard the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. The story goes that after young George received a hatchet as a gift, he cut down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When confronted by his father, a remorseful George responded “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”
We can learn a lot from this simple story. To conduct business with integrity, we must do the right thing at all times and in all circumstances. When we make mistakes, we should take full and immediate responsibility. This sounds like a simple principle for organizations to live and operate by, but as we saw when Facebook’s data sharing practices came to light, the boundaries of business integrity are often gray. Trust, as the names Enron and Bernie Madoff remind us, is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in business today.
In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll revealed that 60% of Americans believed corruption was widespread among businesses. This is a discouraging statistic but one I believe we have the power to correct. At Balfour Beatty, we embrace the role each teammate plays in building our company’s reputation, one day and one decision at a time. We know that each decision can put our reputation at risk or enhance it.
A few years ago, I heard a great analogy about personal influence that really stuck with me. To paraphrase Craig E. Johnson’s theory, ethical actions cast light while unethical actions cast a shadow(1). It’s up to each of us to determine if we want our sphere of influence to do good or influence others negatively. At Balfour Beatty, we stress the importance of never walking past an unsafe action or behavior without speaking up, because it sends a message (or casts a shadow) that isn’t consistent with who we are and what we believe: safety is our most important priority.
Every choice we make—or fail to make—has a ripple effect on others. Although senior leadership may have a more far-reaching influence, every teammate must be aware of any shadows he or she casts because we are only as good as the sum of our parts. Whether it’s an indiscretion as seemingly benign as fudging a timecard or a serious offense like providing incentives or bribes to a client, an organization’s reputation is influenced by every employee.
In our industry, we talk a lot about the risks on our jobsites, but just as critical to success is how our clients, partners and the public perceive us. With a 24/7 news cycle and the instantaneous nature of social media, the mere implication of impropriety can adversely impact an organization’s reputation and revenue more swiftly and pervasively than ever before. And yet it takes years, perhaps even decades, to build a great reputation by consistently delivering on promises and holding true to high ethical standards.
Before I assumed my current role as president of our US Buildings group, I had the privilege of leading our California operations. During that time, we published an internal newsletter that included a column entitled “When No One is Watching.” The purpose was to spotlight the inspirational things our employees did in their spare time like volunteering at nursing homes or leading Girl Scout troops.
The concept of how we act when no one is watching is at the heart of business integrity and whether a company values transparency. During my career, I’ve found that a lot of businesses have suffered because their leadership was afraid to admit when a crack in the armor formed. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP executives gave us a textbook example of just how damaging attempts to deny, hide or spin the truth can be.
Although transparency is critical when mistakes happen, it’s just as important for leaders to be straightforward in all interactions. In doing so, transparent leaders build organizations that both customers and employees trust to act in their best interests. Trust breeds loyalty.
Last year, Balfour Beatty’s repeat client rate was 89.8%. I could cite a number of factors that made this impressive figure possible, but it boils down to this: our teammates prove, time and time again, that they do what they say they’ll do.
In efforts to become an even more transparent organization, our US Buildings team recently asked an important question: “Who are we, and where do we want to go?” The answer was resounding: a people-first business. Because we understand people are our most important asset, we hire the best talent, give that talent the tools needed to be successful and create safe, inclusive work environments where everyone can thrive.
As we work to build the best possible team and achieve the best possible results for our clients, we believe accountability is key to ensuring transparency around our business practices, expectations and ethical standards. While we maintain a comprehensive Code of Conduct and regularly refresh teammates on this guidepost, our business integrity extends beyond compliance with policies. It is the compass of our culture.
I’m a firm believer that when it comes to organizational culture, whatever you don’t change you’re choosing. Sometimes, as has been the case with diversity and inclusion within the construction industry, that change occurs later than it should. I’ve spent nearly 40 years in construction and thought I had a good grasp on the gaps the industry needs to close in this regard. And yet only recently did a glaring problem dawn on me: most jobsites are only outfitted with male restrooms.
While it is so obvious, and I’m reluctant to admit I’ve only just now noticed this problem, it is a good example of a signal that either supports or undermines our message around diversity and inclusion. We need to constantly look at our ‘signals’ and evaluate if they are supportive of our culture and business integrity expectations. A company’s understanding of what it means to operate with integrity should never remain static.
Values like humility, empathy, honesty and treating people with respect are timeless and will always be part of the way we believe and expect business to be conducted at Balfour Beatty. They’re the same values you’d want in a partner or friend. As we think about what it means to be a business of integrity and why it matters, consider whether you’re casting light as a person of integrity, or if there are any areas where you’re casting a shadow. Is it the same at home as it is at work? And most importantly, what can you do to improve it?
(1) Author Craig E. Johnson coined the term shadowcasting as an analogy for unethical leadership practices. He argues that ethical actions cast light and encourage more ethical actions, while unethical actions cast shadow and encourage more unethical actions.