Building ethical cultures by hiring those who voice

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In today’s business, it is crucial that companies are known as having the right values and the willingness to pursue them no matter what the cost is.

Cropped shot of two businesspeople shaking hands during a meeting in the boardroom.
David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies
David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies

Being a determined value-driven organisation makes customers and other stakeholders trust you. Unfortunately, like people, organisations do not always act in rational ways and mistakes are made that can pave the way for a whole array of wrongdoings. As a result, organisations have to be better equipped to identify within the company conflicts of interest and possible violations of these dilemmas.

Therefore, building trust and openness are also crucial elements of building an internal ethical organisational culture. Indeed, only when employees are able to voice the problems they see can ethical lapses be discussed and resolved. A first step in building this kind of culture involves a hiring approach in which companies actively seek those individuals inclined to speak up when ethical challenges surface. Based on findings from the behavioral sciences, some individual dispositions deserve every screening committee’s attention.

First, you want employees who will notice when something unethical is happening. In this respect two dispositions are very relevant:


Individuals scoring high on this trait are careful, reflective, and reliable, which means that they tend to be responsible organisational citizens. Research shows that conscientiousness is indeed positively associated with higher levels of moral reasoning, leading people high in this trait to display less antisocial, unethical, and even criminal behavior.

Moral attentiveness

This describes the extent to which individuals are aware of the various ethical dilemmas at hand. A morally attentive person will see ethical issues where others may see none. It may sound a bit obvious to say, but being aware of the ethical dilemmas at hand are a prerequisite to start talking about it.

Building an ethical culture not only requires people being aware of ethical challenges, but also that they have the intention to take them seriously. Two types of orientations can influence this in particular:

Duty orientation

Individuals with a strong sense of duty tend to be loyal and mission-oriented, and motivated to take action on what they perceive as a problem. Research has shown that a high sense of duty orientation leads employees to voice more quickly their concerns.

Customer orientation

Employees who are strongly motivated to prioritise the needs of customers also tend to adopt more ethical attitudes in the experience and execution of their job. Customer oriented employees tend to be more ethical because they value the others’ needs as highly as their own and create less conflicts of interest in their relationships with others. As a result, they are more willing to address and signal challenges that violate ethical rules and expectations. Research shows that exactly those serving qualities make customer oriented sales agents engage in less unethical behavior than their sales-oriented counterparts.

Finally, in addition to noticing ethical issues and being motivated to address them, employees need to act. In this respect, two personality types are especially important:


Although assertive individuals can sometimes be regarded as grating, the trait of assertiveness is essential in building ethical cultures. In any group, the pressure to conform is high. As a result, the default is often not to question decisions – much less ethically questionable ones. Assertive individuals are the ones who can prevent such groupthink by standing up to the pressures of conformity even (or especially) when doing so carries risk.


Individuals with a proactive personality feel less constrained by situational forces. When it comes to ethical issues, this tendency helps them be more active in keeping a moral course. Research has shown that employees with a proactive personality engage more and more quickly in acts of whistle-blowing. Other research has found this to be even more true in cases where the companies’ stated ethic values conflict with what’s happening. In other words, when companies are serious in stressing the importance of an ethical culture, those employees with a proactive personality will be extremely useful in voicing any initial ethical failures or threats to the companies’ integrity.

Screening job applicants on the traits mentioned above can help develop companies a blueprint of the kind of employee they are looking for who will endorse, shape, and push an ethical culture. I hasten to say, however, that individuals do not act in isolation, which makes that if the voice of these employees needs to be heard a culture needs to be in place where feedback is welcomed and tolerance of different opinions is tolerated. It is only in such open cultures that the ethical issues that are brought to the fore will gain in legitimacy and be taken serious. Having said this, the first and perhaps even most crucial step does hold hiring more ethical employees to ensure that your organisation makes values a priority.

This blog is based on the article “Six traits that predict ethical behaviour at work” that Professor De Cremer published earlier in Harvard Business Review.

David De Cremer
David De Cremer is the KPMG chaired professor of management studies at the Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. Before moving to the UK, he was a professor of management at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. He is the author of the book "Pro-active Leadership: How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker" (2013) and co-author of “Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity” (2017).
David De Cremer

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