6 Ways To Make Your Agency More Ethically Engaged

6 Ways To Make Your Agency More Ethically Engaged

A few months ago, my closest friend came to visit from out of state. She wasn’t able to take a full week off from her job, so she planned to telecommute for a few days. (Since I work from home every day, this was a fun situation!)

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During our joint lunch break one day, she mentioned how nice it was to work remotely for a few days so she could avoid office drama.

She explained that, while she thinks her work is meaningful and fulfilling, and that her company’s public-facing values include “doing the right thing” and “working together,” the leaders in her company have created a culture of predatory competition. For instance, her coworkers regularly shame one another for doing things like eating out of the office or not staying after hours every day.

When I asked her how she felt about that, she shrugged and said, “I really like what I do, but there’s no way I can work for a company that holds these values in the long-term.”


Before we go any further, we should discuss what an ethically engaged company looks like. Companies that really focus on ethics in the workplace know that their choices impact their employees, coworkers, clients, and customers—for better or worse—and they place continual emphasis on keeping these “others” in mind. Further, creating an ethically engaged organization isn’t a fluffy, feel-good concept—it’s research-backed! Studies have shown that employees of ethical organizations are more committed to their company, more productive, and feel greater satisfaction in their work.

Since we’re just beginning a new year, it’s a perfect time to consider how your organization can become more ethics-minded. With that, here are six ideas to get you started!

6 Ways To Make Your Agency More Ethically Engaged

1. Evaluate whether your actions promote ethics in the workplace.

A 2010 Business Ethics Quarterly article on ethical leadership notes that “it is not surprising…that employees rely on their leaders for guidance when faced with ethical questions or problems,” and explains that “leaders set the tone for organizational goals and behavior.” The article also points to research that shows how “leaders who are perceived as ethically-positive influence productive employee work behavior.”

Following this research, it’s easy to understand why anyone in a leadership role needs to be completely invested in setting the example you want to see mirrored across your organization. If you or another leader in your agency feel like ethics only apply in their personal life, don’t expect the rest of your team to be concerned about making ethical choices.

2. Create a “circle of trust” in your agency.

In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, author Parker Palmer suggests creating a “circle of trust” in your organization. For our purposes, this isn’t a physical circle-group activity—rather, it’s a method your leadership team should use to make every employee in your agency feel cared for and respected as individuals. I love this quote from Palmer (p. 171):

“It is daunting to ask honest, open questions in a corporate culture that values speed above thoughtfulness or to evoke personal stories in a workplace where people are cautious and self-protective or to invite truth-telling in a field where people habitually dissemble to protect themselves and each other.”

There are many ways create this circle of trust. For one, Palmer suggests beginning your meetings by asking participants a question that breaks the ice. He explains that asking these questions helps employees learn more about one another and helps them feel less replaceable.

At Nectafy we’ve put this idea in place at our Tuesday team meetings, and begin each meeting with a fun question. Some questions we’ve been asked recently:

  • If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
  • When you are not at work, what is your idea of a good day?
  • How are you celebrating Thanksgiving this year, and what’s one of your favorite Thanksgiving memories?

Circles of trust allow employees to get to know one another on a deeper level, but they have other benefits as well. As Palmer states (p. 172), “Supervisors who provide opportunities for team members to learn about each other’s lives know that colleagues with personal connections are more productive in general and more resilient in a crisis.”

3. Make your agency a “blame-free” zone.

Palmer explains there are direct benefits to this tactic: “CEOs who create blame-free truth-telling zones know that no organization can improve until people feel free to acknowledge and correct their mistakes.” (p. 172)

Try these two methods for creating a blame-free zone:

  • First, we’re regularly encouraged to discuss any instances where another team member has held us back from being able to do our job. This isn’t at all about pointing fingers, but about fixing broken processes. Don’t wait to discuss issues with one another after brooding for a while—call the other person up, identify the issue respectfully, and invite dialogue. Blame should be removed from the situation, and the focus should be on improving whatever process needs fixing.
  • Create an “Issues & Ideas Bucket.” The idea (drawn from Traction by Gino Wickman) is for every employee to add areas of concern, broken processes, or ideas for company improvement to a spreadsheet. These ideas are addressed in order of criticality each quarter, and again, puts the issue itself on the hot seat. Everyone at Nectafy knows that, if they identify something that needs to be fixed, adding that idea to the issue bucket ensures that they’ll be heard.

4. Test your core values by coupling them with current practices.

The idea here is that your formal, explicit values should line up directly with your informal, ritualistic values. (If you don’t have explicit core values at your company, take a look at ours—and why we think it’s so important to have them.) If you think back to the story I told at the beginning of this article, my friend felt like her company’s core values didn’t match the environment she actually worked in. Therefore, those values meant very little to her—because she rarely saw them in action!

We strongly believe that ethically engaged companies don’t just list their values and forget about them—they live them every day. Therefore, you need to be sure that regular company actions line up directly with your written core values. For example:

  • The ritual of a weekly “Shout Out” session allows team members to praise one another for a job well-done, which goes hand-in-hand with our value of team-mindedness.
  • “Learning Time”—the clocked hours each employee sets aside weekly to bi-weekly to learn something new of their choosing—is coupled directly with our value of learning.
  • We’re encouraged to put work out of our minds when we clock out for the day, which is in direct correlation with our value of perspective.

Case in point, if there is a core value on your list that does not line up with an intrinsic value, it may be a goal—but it has no business being on your list of core values.

5. Make core values an integral part of your hiring process.

If you own a small-to-midsize agency, you understand the criticality of hiring the right person. This is important for every business, but in smaller companies, it could mean the difference between keeping your doors open—or not!

Identifying whether your applicants are a good match with your company’s core values during the hiring process is vital.

For example, one of our core values is responsibility. So during our hiring process, applicants are asked to talk about a time when they were given an assignment that involved a great deal of detail that they weren’t sure how to complete. Their answer provides us some insight whether they take initiative to get things done, own the result, and consider how their actions affect the company.

Another of our core values is integrity. So, we ask applicants to describe a time they found out something about their current or former place of employment that didn’t jive with their external values. As a company, we prioritize doing what is right over what is convenient—and the applicant’s response to this question tells us if they believe that as well.

6. Promote and train on healthy dialogue.

A final, critical aspect of helping your company become more ethically engaged is placing focus and emphasis on dialogue. Learning how to become better at dialogue as a company is not the same as simply communicating something with someone. Dialogue, at its core, implies a desire to learn from the person you’re communicating with.

Dialogue can’t happen unless all parties involved are committed to the idea of learning from one another. Consider this: When communicating with your co-workers or employees, do you invite communication—or do you have a tendency to simply impart information and move along? Agency owners, when you’re discussing a project with your clients—do you take time not only to listen and acknowledge their comments and ideas, but also take them to heart? Learning how to communicate dialogically is an important part of becoming more ethically engaged and shouldn’t be forgotten.

(If this topic interests you, check out Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. The section on dialogue is in Chapter 5.)

Let’s continue this conversation.

I’d venture to say you’ve seen, at least to some degree, unethical behavior in the workplace—be it from your coworkers, leaders, or yourself. The problem is, if your agency doesn’t have safeguards and practices in place to foster an ethical environment, unethical choices made by leaders and employees can propagate and eventually take over a culture. You can’t force the people you work with to make good decisions—but as a company leader, you can set the example in your agency to promote an ethically-led environment.

Now, we want to hear from you! How do you ensure that your company is run ethically? How do you foster and promote dialogue in your organization, and with your clients?

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