The Major Ethical Issues in Employee Communications – Ethan McCarty  

Joining me on this week’s episode is Ethan McCarty, the founder and CEO of Integral, an award-winning employee activation agency serving leaders of communications, HR, marketing, and technology. He shares some great public relations ethics insights including:

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career.

I’m an Ohio boy via California, so I’ve kind of lived the Midwest, the left coast, and I live in New York now for the last 20-plus years. I have an undergrad in creative writing and then a master’s degree from the New School for Social Research in Liberal Studies, where I got a chance to acquaint myself with some of the ethical models that I think we may even encounter today.

I spent some time as a journalist at the dawn of the internet in the 90s. Went on to spend 13 years in a variety of roles at IBM, at the intersection of people, the brand, communications, and digital. I had the real privilege to work for Bloomberg for four years as the leader of internal coms and innovation communications.

And I had the privilege to work for Mike Bloomberg and Peter Grower, the chairman, on some of their coms and activities before founding Integral, just shy of five years ago. It’s always been my desire to operate in a kind of entrepreneurial space, though I will admit, I did not think that I would be an entrepreneur. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, but I had some encouragement from some wonderful mentors along the way who helped me find this path.

Thinking about the path, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I think it’s ongoing and one of the reasons why I leapt at the opportunity to speak with you today. When I was at the New School for Social Research, I ended up writing my master’s thesis about some of the complexities that I felt like I was encountering. Not just as an individual in the corporate workforce, but also as somebody who is in a role designed to influence the behaviors of 100s of 1000s of people.

I was at the time, the editor-in-chief of IBM’s intranet. When I oversaw IBM’s internet, the company had north of 400,000 employees worldwide. The homepage got as much or more traffic than The New York Times website. That’s a very influential role to have, shaping the information space and the space in which people form their beliefs and the confidence to take action and the actions that they would take.

And around that time, I was on a core team revisiting IBM’s values, and it was a profoundly interesting exercise. There were two leaders who really instigated the activity. John Iwata and Mike Wing, who were my bosses at that time. And we were thinking about values as part of IBM’s management system, which these days I think kind of everybody’s like, oh yeah, that’s obvious.

But to go the route of actually asking several 100,000 people what they think the values of the company are, should be, and could be? It was a very deep and meaningful activity for me, and also raised a lot of ethical questions.

  • Can an organization even have values?
  • How would they be expressed?
  • What if there’s dissent?
  • What if behaviors emerge that are antithetical to those values?
  • Is there punishment and consequence?

That was an ethical awakening for me, and it was part of the reason why I wanted to engage in the study of various systems and philosophies at the New School. Is to say, “Okay, my creative writing degree from Ohio University hasn’t equipped me for this experience.”

So, I’d say that idea of creating shared belief is an ongoing ethical challenge. Not just for me personally, but for pretty much every organization and leader.

Let’s talk about that. You’re creating that shared belief for 400,000 employees. How do you make sure you respect their autonomy while you’re still really working to communicate and inculcate the proper behavior?

The very best value systems at an organizational level reflect, at least in aggregate, the values and beliefs of individuals. This is one of the things that unfortunately, gets almost characterized or parodied in how it gets executed. Okay, well we did a focus group or whatever. And then we decided to declare the same values that we would’ve anyway. And they’re kind of generic  – like integrity, trust, and service or clients or whatever.

That’s a potential peril, but it’s also a huge opportunity for organizations to listen to their people and to bring to life what actually animates a workforce. By the way, I think it can work as a very effective passive filter for people who wouldn’t thrive in that environment.

I’ll give you an example. We work with companies in the defense industry, and you look at their values and it’s like, oh my God, that’s hardcore. They’re really going after the bad guys.

And by comparison to the values that we help an organization articulate in say, a software business, that might be much more kind of bottoms up and about lateral collaboration. Those values from the defense industry would be anathema to those people.

So, I think they can work as a very, very positive passive filter to indicate to people, oh, look, the values that you bring to this organization, you should just know that these are some of our expectations. It’s how we’re going to choose to behave here that’s correct to this group of people. And if that doesn’t look right for you, cool, that’s great. Move on.

That is ultimately how these value systems can work. Just like with any cultural system, it works over time. It isn’t like, in any one particular instance, this person’s values need to be elevated at the expense of the whole organization. It’s probably something that plays out over a longer period of time.

John Iwata and the other senior executives at IBM set the values. How do you then go and make sure people live them? So, you don’t have a case like Ernst & Young where auditors were found cheating on their ethics tests? How do you make sure all the employees, and not just the senior management, understands what it means to live those values?

It’s a really great question. I’m a big fan of Ed Shine’s models around what comprises corporate culture, and he kind of has this pyramid. To grossly oversimplify it at the top, there are the declared values, and in the middle, there are kind of these experiential things like the artifacts and the symbols and rituals in an organization. And then at the deepest level, there are the underlying beliefs that are commonly held.

Any organization can execute at that top level. That’s the poster on the wall or the tchotchke. Getting into that next level is harder. I mean, actually instrumenting your whole organization to reify the values and that word reify is really important. My values are not being espoused; they’re being experienced. They are made real in some sense.

If I constantly see people get promoted because they’re exemplars of the values. If I constantly see people get the coolest assignments because they’re exemplars of the values. If I constantly see the leadership of an organization call out, even people very deep in an organization, because they exemplify the values, that starts to become those rituals and so on.

You must ritualize it, it has to be embedded in your compensation programs, in your reward and recognition for all those things. And that’s the only way over time to affect the underlying belief, which is the hardest thing to move. Because I’m not going to believe something just because you tell me or because I saw it once. I must hear it again and again and I have to see it again and again. I have to personally experience it.

I have to have a moment in my life where, wow, my decision in this moment is going to be driven by the values because I know that that is not only going to be safe but rewarded. There’s going to be positive outcomes for all involved because of that, even if it’s a very difficult decision. That’s when the underlying belief starts to evolve and change.

It’s like taking your vitamins once a year. It doesn’t do you any good. You need to make sure you do it on an ongoing basis.

That’s right. I know many leaders sort of quickly tire. Like didn’t we tell everybody about the values? But that repetition has to happen and the demonstration through personal action has to happen for it to be effective.

How do you recommend organizations enforce and live their values when people fail to meet the standards?

The first thing that organizations need to understand is how they will learn from their own failings. That is really, really difficult. There are some industries where learning from failure is, it just is not what we do. And then there are other industries where learning from failure is the essence of the industry.

If you can get a handle on this sort of broader topic of what happens when we fail, that’s kind of the first step into understanding what kind of consequences pop in when there are failures in values or other ethical mechanisms. That consequence doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative consequence.

I will tell you in my own experience, there have been times when I’ve blown it. There was a time when I was managing some very high visibility things at IBM. And I really screwed something up very publicly and I literally called my vice president and said, “I am willing to resign. I know that this is an embarrassment.”

It was amazing. Both Ben Edwards and John came back to me and said, “Yeah, that sucked. Bet you won’t do that again. And what can we learn and what protections can we put in place?”

It was just incredible. They were like, “Well, let me cite the values to you. Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.” They demonstrated it. I experienced it, and here I am.

Here I am 10 years later, and I am still quite moved by that moment and in the investment of political and personal capital that they had to make in order to create the space for me to learn from that.

People make mistakes. We’re human, we’re going to fail, we’re going to make errors of judgment. It’s how do you learn and use to build upon that?

100%, 100%. One of the things that I did really want to talk with you about, is the relationship between personal identity and brand identity as experienced in the workplace. It is a huge dilemma for everybody who’s in the working world. Particularly for people who are interested in the communications’ domain and the influence that we can have as communicators and marketers.

Particularly as this idea of the why and purpose enters the language and the effort of the communications and marketing profession. We are asking people to look at themselves and ask existential questions at a personal level in the workplace. This is a huge opportunity for people to find great alignment.

Integral does an annual study called the Integral Employee Activation Index. In our study we found that when there’s high alignment between personal values and organizational values, both the individual and the organization reap tremendous benefits. For example, people with that high alignment are about twice as likely to think that their company’s best days are ahead of it, and that their own career, their best days are ahead at that organization.

They’re less likely to leave, they’re more likely to innovate, take risks, all these things. If you don’t have that alignment, you have two and a half times more likely a lot of negative behaviors, like ignoring safety protocols and not wanting to participate in mentorship or share knowledge across teams.

I’m very excited about that, but I also think there’s a huge ethical risk in what I was telling you earlier. This sort of sorting mechanism that happens. Oh yeah, I want to join that company because of its values. Or I want to not join that company because of what I perceived to be their values and so on.

There’s been an incredible geographical and social polarization in the United States. People have literally up and moved to different places in order to be with people who are like-minded. I’m concerned there are fewer and fewer places where one mixes it up with people who have very different points of view and perspectives. That is incredibly risky if that happens at scale in the workplace as well.

It already is in a lot of ways. If I tell you I work for Chick-fil-A, or if I tell you I work for Ben and Jerry’s, you have a pretty good idea of my political leanings. This is, on the one hand, really exciting and interesting that people could find purpose and find community. On the other hand, I think it is very risky for our democracy. Also just intellectually, I think it can impoverish the world that we live in, to not be around people who hold differing points of view.

That’s one our biggest challenges at the Echo Chamber is we’re self-isolating. Even in social media, we’re self-isolating. Until you understand other perspectives and incorporate it, your biases are going to make you do some things that aren’t appropriate or aren’t right.

That’s exactly right. I was running employee communications at the time of Brexit. I was running employee coms for Bloomberg, which at the time I think we had 3500 people in London. It was really, really difficult because this was pre-Trump era, really the first taste of this incredible polarization in the workplace that I’d really experienced.

And we had people who might be at risk of losing their right to live in the town where they had children. They’d been there for a decade and all this stuff, sitting next to people with these giant flags and let’s get out of here kind of symbols on their desk. That is a manifestation of this macro ethical sort of dilemma that we’re facing.

Your personal politics, your personal values, bringing that to work, I want people to be able to do that. Bloomberg being a news organization, or at least a big chunk of it, is very, very committed to free speech and dialogue. And then those things come together and it’s like, whoa, that’s really a risky space to operate in.

Are you always representing your brand? Or can you be yourself and do other things outside working hours? Where I am, I believe I’m representing my company 24/7, but is that right for the junior employee? And how does that work? I think there’s a lot of ethical issues around that too.

It is a really tricky one. It’s like, don’t be gay at work or don’t be Muslim at work, or don’t be a working mom at work. That’s just not realistic. I mean, we are who we are. One of the trends that we’re seeing, is that organizations have incredibly powerful tools now for segmenting content to reach certain people in the marketing end. And that is increasingly the experience in the workplace too.

The technologies and the practices are really emerging to be able to say, “Okay, this is content that’s most relevant to you, Mark, because it will be helpful to you in whatever way because of what we know about you.” There’s real peril in that personalization as well. Where, oh wow, you’ve made this really convenient for me, but now I’m excluded from content that I might be interested in. Or you’ve created a bubble for me at work. Or you’re giving me content based on an assumption about my identity and I don’t like that assumption. Or you’ve mis-characterized it. Maybe I don’t fit into your categories and now you’re profiling me with something.

I think there’s real peril there because that information about you as a person might just be publicly available, but because of your presence on social media or even because you’re working from home and I can literally see in your house like, oh, you’re a dad. I saw your kid walk by. Or you’re a pet owner. Yet, do you permit an employer to leverage that information in any way? In certain ways?

Right now, that is quite unresolved. Right now, most of the communications tools pointed towards employee populations are drawing from relatively benign information sets. Like data sets like the active directory that says your role or your location or these kinds of things. But they also include PII. Things like your gender and various healthcare statuses and things like that.

I mean, those are in the data sets, but not targeted yet. I don’t think we’re far off from it. You could see a benefit. For example, if I’m a smoker and I want to quit, maybe it would be helpful for my company to target me with information about the free smoking cessation program. But I might also, in receiving that, think like, oh man, this company doesn’t like smokers. They want me to quit. Maybe I don’t want to quit and you’re telling me to quit, but I like smoking.

One topic that’s been I think inescapable in the news recently is quiet quitting. What are your thoughts on the issue?

I think it’s a new phrase for a perennial or maybe enduring phenomenon. I understand as well that why we would want to name it right now. Everybody has been sprinting a marathon for the last couple years. It’s been really hard.

And yet my personal belief, or maybe it’s a wish, is that everybody that I encounter, I really believe they come to work every day wanting to do their best. Sometimes there are reasons why you can’t. If we adopt a posture, particularly as leaders or managers, of what can I do to unblock the people who look up to me, or who are taking direction from me? What can I do to unblock and unlock their potential? As opposed to how can I put more pressure on them to conform and perform in the way that I want them to?

If you do that, I think you’re going to see a lot less quiet quitting in your shop. Look, I love watching all the videos. I don’t use TikTok, but I do use Instagram, and I see a lot of it gets ported over. The mouse jigglers and all this stuff. I like looking at all that. I think it’s funny. I think that those people, they may be misapprehended by their managers as lazy or disengaged.

Really what it is they’re blocked and there’s so much there that could be unlocked for them that would be amazing for the company, for the team. And by the way, managers are not the postal service just sending messages. And managers are not wardens, to keep the prison population under control.

If that’s the idea about management, of course you need everybody in the office so that you can watch them do their thing and enforce it.

Think about management as coaching or as service. Employees are consumers of work. If you think of your role as a leader or a manager as providing customer service, I think you’ll see a lot less quiet quitting.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I think the best piece of ethical advice I falsely attribute it to my grandfather, but it may be one of those things that just people just say.

You’ve got two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like ethical advice, but it really is. Because if you bring an ethic of listening and understanding to your relationships, that’s going to lead to incredible outcomes. And one other thing that I would say, and this one I can definitely attribute to a mentor of mine, Mike Wing, who I mentioned earlier. He said, “Life is long-ish and it’s all about relationships.” I think about that all the time.

Thank you so much. Really appreciate the time and the insights today.

What a pleasure, Mark. I really enjoyed it and I hope anybody who wants to connect with me, will. I’m easy to find. You can go to Team, or look me up on LinkedIn, Ethan McCarty. I’d be so pleased to hear your stories and to mix it up with you.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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