As numerous organizations have ramped up their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts in the last couple of years, the importance of genuinely ethical leadership has grown as well.
While ethical behavior should be a priority for anyone in charge, it is essential for those at the helm of diverse organizations whose team members bring with them various viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences. Leaders must be prepared to unite these team members and objectively address inequities and differences.
These team members are also observing their higher-ups. Highlighting the work still to be done, a recent Gallup survey of U.S. workers revealed that only 36% think their employer “would do what is right” if they raised a concern about ethics and integrity.
Neil Cadman, CPM, president of Cadman Group in El Segundo, California, and vice chair of IREM’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Board (DEIB)—previously the Diversity Advisory Board (DAB)—says it is essential for every leader to begin running their company with ethics at its heart. He uses this approach in every decision he makes, striving to view every employee through the same lens.
“An ethical leader supports, treats, and judges each person under the same guidelines,” he says. “But they also understand that each person is unique and what works for one person may not work for another.”
Bestowing upon his team what he calls “Neilisms,” he defines an ethical leader as someone whom people would follow toward the edge of the cliff only because they know that the leader would never harm them and take them over that ledge.
Byrdy Kelley, CPM, ARM, CEO of Melan Property Management in Bethesda, Maryland, says ethical leaders must establish a value-driven culture of trust and respect that is fair and equitable to all. “This culture is quintessential for inspiring loyalty and growth within a diverse organization,” says Kelley, a former member of IREM’s DAB.
Effective ethical leadership is no mystery. Successful ethical leaders have many of the same values in common—values that help them gain the all-important trust from their team members. Kelley and Cadman describe the most common values:
- Honesty. A leader cannot be dishonest and ethical—the two qualities can’t coexist.
- Integrity. A moral leader is capable of standing up for what is right, even when it’s not the most popular decision.
- Respect. A leader cannot earn respect unless they give respect to everyone.
- Effective communication skills. Communication is important both for conveying your reasons behind decision-making and listening attentively.
- Transparency. When a leader is transparent, they establish an open dialogue with others that builds trust.
“A leader must do more than hear—they must be diligent in listening to verbal and nonverbal cues,” Kelley says. “Emotional intelligence allows a leader to understand and learn from their employees better and lead their organization to greatness.” Cadman adds that ethical leaders are also constantly learning.
This desire within Cadman helped build Cadman Group’s diverse team. “Our company isn’t diverse because we were striving to check off boxes to ensure diversity, but because I was looking for different mindsets among people who could teach me.”
One with the mission
Leaders possessing all the necessary characteristics can only go so far if the organization as a whole has an opposing or unclear mission. Kelley says leaders must address ambiguities immediately, so those at the top can guide with a clear vision.
Within her company, Kelley makes sure ethical values are made clear during the hiring process. “Aligning our team with Melan’s values starts during the job interview,” she says. “We establish in the interview if the person possesses similar values, and we know from there if they will be a good fit.”
If an organization has outdated or unfair practices, ethical leaders must take the reins to amend them. Cadman says the phrase “because that’s how we’ve always done it” can be a clear indicator that practices need to be examined. “You always need to be ready to redefine yourself,” he says. “Organizations need to experience that growth and change in order to evolve.”
Open internal dialogue can help identify these opportunities for growth. For example, Kelley says working with human resources to conduct payroll audits can hold a leader accountable and ensure equal pay.
Ethics is the answer
All aspects of leadership come with challenges, and ethical responsibility is no different. Whether making a fair decision when it’s unpopular or mentoring team members stuck in a narrow mindset, leaders must remain steadfast in upholding ethical values. Ensuring there is diverse representation in every level of management and leadership is a critical step in representing and hearing from all viewpoints.
When an ethical dilemma does arise, Cadman has a piece of advice: Slow down and listen.
“Always ask yourself, ‘Is there another way to look at this?’” Cadman says. “Pace your reaction and see if it’s based on your limiting personal view or a worldview. Use your worldview to try and see the other point of view. Slowing down and interpreting is critical for everything—from managing people to running properties.”
He says slowing down can also help leaders take the time to explain the different sides of an issue and why and how they came to a decision. Then, as a mentor, the leader can help expand employees’ ways of thinking.
“Try to explain to them, ‘I understand why you feel this way, but let’s look at it from a worldview and solve the problem,’” Cadman says.
And don’t be surprised if there is no clear-cut solution to a dilemma. Kelley says developing an action plan can help resolve the issue quickly and efficiently. “Think about the consequences of the moral issue at hand for all parties involved,” she says.
Kelley says offering training on topics like conscious or unconscious bias is essential to prevent it from happening again. “Once there is a clear understanding, an open dialogue can then occur,” she says.
But no matter what decision is made, the leader needs to stand by it, popular or unpopular, both Kelley and Cadman agree.
The infinite upside
Cadman points out that the greatest value of practicing ethical leadership in the day-to-day affairs of professional life is knowing that his conscience can rest easy at night.
“There’s always that underlying benefit that has nothing to do with financial gain or accolades,” he says. “It’s about how you feel at night when you review your day and ask yourself, ‘Was I a good person? Did I contribute today?’ That’s the biggest payback for me.”
Ethical companies reap plenty of measurable benefits, too, from employee retention to customer loyalty, and leading with ethics can be a boon to the bottom line.
Kelley says employee and contractor loyalty is the most meaningful benefit she has experienced because of ethical leadership. It has also allowed her firm to develop relationships with larger brokerage firms that would not have been formed otherwise. “These relationships are new and over time will benefit our firm by way of referrals and strategic partnerships across the country,” she says.
Cadman has also seen firsthand the strategic advantages that ethical decision-making can give to a business.
“When my company became more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, it became far more effective, and we achieved our goals more easily,” Cadman says. As he stated earlier, surrounding himself with people who were different from him was the greatest choice he made. “If I surround myself with people unlike me, I’m going to learn more, I’m going to better understand others’ needs and desires, and then I can better tailor our product, which is the goal of any business.”