What is accountability and why does it matter to business?
First, What Does “Accountability” Mean?
It means we:
- Continually let stakeholders — supervisors, directors, clients, suppliers, investors, etc. — know what we’re working on in a clear, concise, and timely manner;
- Are able to justify what we are doing to someone or something (shareholders, governments, investors, or others);
- Are willing and able to bear responsibility, in full or in part, for any adverse impact resulting from our actions; and
- Continually report to affected parties on the results – good or bad – of our actions.
Accountability should exist at all levels of your business. It should be driven from the top of the organization and make its way into all levels. Most importantly, it should be part of every employee’s internal code of ethics and the employee’s code should match the company’s.
Why Is Accountability so Important to Us?
We see mounting evidence of a lack of accountability in the world of business — more instances of employees doing what they want rather than what they should. The poor decisions of certain individuals — powerful individuals within large corporate entities — often result in the enormous loss of money and trust. And, on those rare occasions when these individuals are caught victimizing others, they often deny responsibility, are almost never punished, and the punishment rarely fits the crime.
But it starts well before that. In business, too many individuals fail to hold themselves accountable to themselves, let alone to stakeholders in their enterprise. They sometimes lack what’s called a moral compass or if they have one, they don’t use it.
From the moment we begin a business, we have an obligation to all stakeholders. Once upon a time, we didn’t have to make that felt obligation explicit — it was understood that we’d take care of clients or go out of business. Personal interplay makes that possible.
As businesses grow, it becomes easier for those in charge to distance themselves from the “who” and treat stakeholders as “what”. Some think this makes good business sense; they call it impartiality. This type of impartiality, unfortunately, has become encoded in business and governmental standards, rules, and regulations.
Such “impartiality” equates to lessening the obligation a business feels to its direct stakeholders. The business is no longer directly connected to stakeholders, just as top management is no longer directly linked to the company’s employees. The business codifies its practices, not because it is the right thing to do but because it is the law and there’s just so darned much going on.
Following the letter of the law is not the same as accountability, though. Accountability is acting in a way that is right, just, and ethical. Accountability is taking ownership of the outcome of our actions, regardless of what that outcome is or what effect it may have.
Accountability primarily comes from within. We each follow a personal code of ethics — we hold ourselves responsible for our actions and their repercussions. When our code is compatible with the company’s code, there is a system of accountability.
It’s sometimes said our ethics are “what we do when no one is looking”. How accountable are you, whether or not anyone’s looking?