Experiencing The Other Side: USAA’s Ethical Standards

by Susanna Savage

USAA is an organization that provides insurance and banking services to past and present members of the military, as well as their families (McGregor, 2005). But USAA’s is not only focused on providing services to its members. It is also striving to maintain a corporate culture that exemplifies its values, while abolishing the commonly held stereotype that financial organizations care more about their profits than their clients (McGregor, 2005). This case study critically examines USAA’s culture with a focus on organizational ethics.

Photo credit: http://paycheck-chronicles.military.com/2016/01/04/2016-usaa-military-pay-deposit-dates/

Organizational Culture
The USAA standard is a set of six ethical standards that the organization strives to incorporate into every level and aspect of the company. The first standard is to put members and mission first. This means that for USAA the needs of the military personnel and veterans that it serves must be valued above all else. Another standard is to live the USAA core values. These values are “service, loyalty [and] integrity” (The USAA Standard, 2015), and they should be demonstrated in all transactions between employees and members, as well as within the organization between employees.

Another standard is “be authentic and build trust” (The USAA Standard, 2015). This encapsulates USAA’s belief in the importance of honesty. Organization members should act in a consistent way across varied situations. Most importantly, they should always have the best interest of the customer in mind. “Create conditions for people to succeed” is key to maintaining effective work teams and employee relations within the organization (The USAA Standard. 2015). Employees should always encourage and push each other to succeed.

USAA encourages collaboration that utilizes a diversity of ideas. For this reason, employees should purposely form work teams made of individuals who will have different ideas and ways of looking at issues. In the end, the best ideas should win out, and the team will be able to make the most effective decision based on a large variety of view points. USAA’s final standard is “innovate and build for the future” (The USAA Standard, 2015). Here, employees are encouraged to suggest and implement change. The organization should be constantly evolving, and adapting to the times.

The USAA standard incorporates aspects of all the perspectives of ethical decision-making outlined by Avtgis, Rancer and Liberman, but seems to most closely align with the Relationship-Based perspective. This perspective is defined as “assum[ing] that all relationships within and among the organization and its various external publics are based on quality and honest communication” (Avtgis, 2012, p. 201). This lines up squarely with USAA’s ethical standards.

USAA uses a variety of methods to teach its standards to employees, but perhaps the most notable of these is the “boot camp” program. This ten week program requires that employees do rigorous, military style exercise sessions multiple times a day and eat military standard meals for lunch (Fleurke, 2009). The program is designed to help employees understand what their customers go through and build empathy and common ground (Shevory, 2014).

Critical Analysis
I have designed a code of ethics for the Ashland University Writing Center, at which I work as a Writing Assistant (WA). The code is made up of four ethical standards, which are as follows:

1. Respect for students: All employees must hold a genuine respect for the students that visit the Writing Center. Those students come from a diversity of writing levels and backgrounds to share their work with us. Whatever the quality of their work, it is important that WAs respect them. It is often very difficult for students to share their writing with us, not only because of skill level, but also because their writing can be very personal and topics are often sensitive. In order to effectively assist students, WAs must be conscious of this and thoughtfully communicate their respect to the students.

2. Avoid contributing to plagiarism: Students come in every day with papers that they want “fixed.” WAs must be firm in explaining that they can point out troublesome areas, make suggestions, teach strategies and collaborate, but that they cannot “fix” a student’s paper. The WA’s job is to teach skills and enable students to work through their writing challenges on their own in the future. Their professors want to be able to evaluate the student’s work own, not the WA’s.

3. Respect for professors: WAs often work as the middle-men between students and their professors. When communicating with professors, it is important for WAs to remember that although they take on an authority role with the students, in the end the ultimate authority is the professor. WAs must be professional and polite in their communication with professors and ever mindful of their subordinate relationship.

4. The needs of the student come first: As an organization, our primary goal is to help students produce higher quality writing. Of course there is never enough time to address every potential writing issue for any given writing assignment. Thus, it is the WAs job to strategically decide which areas are most crucial. This means tackling challenging writing problems, even when it’s easier to focus on less significant details. It also means going the extra mile to provide students with advice and materials that they will need to complete the writing process after they leave the Writing Center. Additionally, the Writing Center must be flexible and accommodate all students, particularly those with specialized learning needs.

In order to help new employees understand how important these standards are, it is vital that they spend some time as a student in the Writing Center. New employees who have never visited the Writing Center as a student should be required to make an appointment before their training begins. They should bring in a piece their writing for a WA to look at and act as if they are just a normal student, seeking assistance. This would give them a taste of the student’s perspective and impress upon them how important these standards are. New employees should also be required to sign a document, promising to honor these four standards. To ensure that the standards are kept alive in the day-to-day of the Organization, they should be posted inside the Writing Center.


Avtgis, T. A., Rancer, A. S., Liberman, C. J., (2012). Organizational communication: Strategies for success. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Fleurke, X., (January, 2009). Walking a mile in the shoes of your customer. Business Roundtable: Institute for Corporate Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.corporate-ethics.org/walking-a-mile-in-the-shoes-of-your-customer/

McGregor, J., (1, September, 2005). Employee innovator: USAA. Fast Company Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/53782/employee-innovator-usaa

Shevory, K., (1, September, 2014). Boot camp for bankers. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/09/01/boot-camp-for-bankers/?_r=0

The USAA standard (2015) [PDF Document]. Retrieved from https://www.usaajobs.com/docs/USAA-Standard.pdf


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