ATD Blog

Consistent Ethical Leadership Increases Employee Engagement

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ethics often receives a bad rap. Much of the press on the topic focuses on the negative impact of making ethical mistakes. We hear about fines, sanctions, and ethical failures. While we need to be aware of what can happen when things go wrong, there is a much more important side of ethics that concentrates on the positive benefits of ethics.

It turns out that there is a powerful positive ripple effect that consistent ethical leadership brings to organizations. In the Leading in Context Manifesto, a statement of my beliefs about the positive impact of ethical leadership, I wrote about some of the ways that ethical leadership engages a wide variety of stakeholders: “We believe that ethical leadership drives business metrics including employee engagement, customer retention and innovation. Ethical leadership creates great places to work, and gives us staying power in a global marketplace.”

10 Ways Ethics Engages Employees

While we may not immediately think about ethics when we think about employee engagement, they are closely connected. Building an ethical culture also creates the kind of environment where people can do their best work.

Here are 10 ways proactive and consistent ethical leadership can improve employee engagement.

  • Send a message that the company wants to do more than the minimum standard when it comes to ethics.
  • Create a safe working environment where leaders demonstrate support and care.
  • Build a culture of respect for people and differences.
  • Demonstrate commitment to people’s success and well-being.
  • Build trust, which enables employees to get more done and enjoy their work more.
  • Engage employees through community service, adding meaning to their work.
  • reduce waste through sustainability efforts, and invites employees to be a part of protecting the planet.
  • Ground the work of the organization in ethical values, providing an environment where much is expected, and people can accomplish great things together.
  • Align the words and actions of leadership so that employees know what to expect.
  • Keep leaders in a learning mode, always staying competent and open to change.

In its report, Ethics and Employee Engagement,” the Ethics Resource Center contends: “Positive perceptions of an organization’s ethical culture are associated with higher levels of engagement. Furthermore, management’s commitment to ethics is particularly important for employee engagement.”

What is it about ethical leadership that brings out people’s best? Could it be that ethical leaders demonstrate care and concern for everyone, and build trust? Could it be that they think long-term and consider many constituents when they make decisions? Could it be that they seek solutions that are mutually beneficial, and are open to learning from others? I believe that all of these factors and more contribute to the power of proactive ethical leadership.


When we bring out the best in people through ethical leadership, they will want to bring their creativity, ideas, and enthusiasm to work. It’s time we stopped thinking about ethics as avoiding problems, and started thinking about its powerful ability to engage employees and transform our organizations.

About the Author

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a strategic leadership development consulting firm in Richmond, Virginia. Linda has taken on the mission of “clarifying what it means to lead ethically in a complex world” and her work is striking a chord with leaders across industries. Since its launch in 2009, her Leading in Context® Blog has attracted followers from 160 countries.  In January, 2013 she was named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Linda has over 25 years of leadership, training design, consulting, and organizational development experience. Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies, small to medium size businesses and professional practices, and non-profit organizations in a wide variety of industries. In addition to providing visioning retreats and leadership development, she publishes leadership learning tools through her website at Linda is former Senior Vice President and Training Division Manager at Central Fidelity Bank, a Virginia bank that was headquartered in Richmond. When she led the Central Fidelity Training Division, she and her team were awarded the National Training Director’s Forum Newsletter Award for Outstanding Performance in Training for Matching Training and Consulting Services to Business Imperatives. Linda was honored as an Outstanding Young Virginian by the Virginia Jaycees in recognition of her professional and volunteer contributions within Virginia communities. Linda holds a Master’s degree in Human Resource Development from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Linguistics from the University of Virginia. Selected Publications and Presentations Include: Interview by The Human Factor, a human resource publication in India about trends in ethical leadership. Interview appears in the January 2013 HR & Business Trends Issue. Presentation on The Future of Ethics and Leadership at the 2012 Richmond Society of Human Resource Management Strategic Leadership Conference Article “Leadership Ethics Training: Why is it So Hard to Get it Right?” published in ASTD’s Training and Development Magazine in 2009, and reprinted in 2010 in T&D’s Best of Leadership Development 2006-2009. In addition to consulting, blogging and publishing, Linda also teaches leadership as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. 
Her book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership redefines leadership at a higher level of complexity with the ethical values built in. She is an award-winning author and conference speaker and is frequently quoted in the media. Learn more at

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