Archive for the ‘codes of ethics’ Category

Why HR Management is Always Ethically Relevant

Ethics should be thought of as the heart of your organization’s HR function. Likewise, HR is likely to be the heart of attempts to manage ethics within your organization. Let me explain why.

It’s hard to imagine a function more essential to most businesses than HR.
HR may not get the glory that Finance does, but it’s just as important. Hiring, training, evaluating, and retaining the right people are all undeniably core management challenges. Every manager knows this. The relevant difference between Finance and HR is that Finance gains prestige by bringing to bear the tools of quantitative analysis; HR issues, on the other hand, are typically harder to quantify, harder to mathematize, leading many to think of them as “mushy.” But “mushy” typically just means “I find this stuff difficult.” Managers who find HR difficult would rather hide in the numbers. Ironically, HR gets called “soft” precisely because it is so hard.

At many large companies, the HR Department is in charge of ethics — or at least that part of ethics that isn’t bundled with Compliance. The HR Department is often tasked with making sure every employee gets a copy of the company Code of Ethics, for example. HR is also typically in charge of ethics training, as well as updating the company’s Conflict of Interest policy and other ethically-salient policies.

But the fact that many companies embed their Ethics function within their HR function may actually obscure the extent to which every aspect of HR is ethically significant. The full extent to which HR is an ethical matter may not be obvious.

Ethics is fundamentally concerned with the choices we make — either as individuals or as companies — when those choices have an impact on people’s well-being or their rights. And so ethics is and must be part of all of the policies and activities for which HR is responsible, not just the ones that have the word “ethics” explicitly attached to them.

Hiring, for instance, (or setting the rules for hiring) involves balancing a range of value-laden criteria, such as skill and experience and reliability, and avoiding ethically-inappropriate criteria such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The same goes for performance evaluation. Likewise, how overtime is handled — who is eligible, under what conditions, with whose permission — is a fundamental question of justice. This is also true of policies related to discipline, which obviously require attention to fairness, another central sub-topic within ethics.

So even if it weren’t in charge of ethics training and ethics policies, the HR function would remain ethically crucial.

Finally, HR also gains ethical significance by embodying most of the few tools available for managers to shape that elusive thing known as corporate culture. Culture — that communal set of understandings, beliefs and traditions that give a shared sense of “how we do things around here” — is widely acknowledged to be a critical element of organizational success. Indeed, there’s a well-worn saying to the effect that culture trumps strategy every time. That is, regardless of what strategic initiatives senior managers put in place, or what policies they put down on paper, those initiatives and policies are liable to fail if the culture of the workplace isn’t suited to them. Enron famously had a rather lengthy code of ethics, but the culture fostered by the company’s compensation model and its performance review process went a long way toward fostering a culture in which unethical behaviour was readily tolerated. Culture, you might say, makes up an organization’s collective ethical character.

So we see, then, that HR is actually ethically significant in two ways. It is the locus of an enormous number of central, ethically-relevant policies, practices, and decisions. And it is the mechanism through which organizational culture is built, the culture that will hopefully support rather than frustrate ethical decision making.


A shorter version of this blog entry appeared at the Cornerstone Blog

Does the Right Tone at the Top Guarantee Success? Part 1

I spent the morning today speaking at Centre for Accounting Ethics Symposium called “Accounting Ethics and Tone at the Top” (put on by the School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo). I was part of a panel discussion that took on the provocative question of whether positive ethical tone at the top ensures success.

It’s a provocative question because the word “ensure” pretty much points to a negative answer. Success is never guaranteed in business. In fact, it is the constant fear of failure that drives competition, that drives the pursuit of efficiency, that drives innovation. Nothing – literally nothing – guarantees success. Will a killer product ensure success? Of course not! You need the right financial model, the right marketing channels, the right organization, and the right competitive environment too. Will a great team ensure success? No, of course not. Other organizations have great teams, too. You also need the right leadership, a product that consumers want, and so on.

So positive tone won’t guarantee success, but neither will anything else. The right tone won’t guarantee ultimate victory in the marketplace, but that’s hardly a criticism. The fact that a positive ethical tone won’t guarantee success doesn’t mean it’s not important, indeed, essential. Without it, an organization’s chances of long-term success – defined either in terms of integrity or in terms of the bottom line – are considerably diminished.

So what do we mean when we refer to “tone”? Tone is much more complicated than it sounds.

In this context ethical “tone” means the tone or tenor that a leader sets with regard to choices between right and wrong, between more and less admirable forms of behaviour. Tone is the signal that is sent from top to bottom within an organization about what kind of behaviour is to be admired and emulated, and what kinds of behaviour will not be tolerated. Ethical leadership means taking responsibility for the tone you set.

But tone takes many forms. It is crucial to see that setting the right tone means much more than just sounding ethical. It also means acting ethically, and being seen as acting ethically. Tone consists in the set of signals given through the words a leader says and the deeds she does and the attitudes she displays.

It means doing what you can to manage that elusive something called “organizational culture,” and knowing that culture trumps strategy every time.

In particular, setting the right tone means avoiding – in both words and deeds – excuses and rationalizations. Rationalizations (“I had no choice;” “No one was really hurt;” “It’s not my job;” “It’s a stupid rule anyway…”), are an absolutely key ingredient in a great many instances of wrongdoing. And we don’t generally make up rationalizations on our own and learn how to apply them from scratch. We learn them, unfortunately, from our role models, from people we look up to, from people we see as leaders. Leaders can and must set the tone, in neither helping themselves to such rationalizations, nor tolerating them when used by others.

Setting the right tone also means fostering open conversation about ethics, about the obligations of and obligations within your organization. It means putting ethics on the table. It means letting those who work for you know that it’s OK to ask questions about ethics, and to make values and principles an explicit part of their decision-making. A leader needs to build decision-making capacity and empower employees to take responsibility.

We can sum up the significance of tone this way: A great deal has been written about ethical leadership, and the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ That literature might be usefully summed up by two sweeping statements, two unavoidable truths:

1) Ethics must come from the top down. People take their cues from their leaders. Yes, people learn their basic values from their parents and other childhood role-models, long before they become employees. But they learn how to enact those values in a business context from their workplace mentors and leaders. All of us learn basic lessons about honesty and integrity from our parents. But few of us learn about technical concepts such as Conflict of Interest from our parents. They don’t teach us about the moral obligations embodied in fiduciary relationships, or about how to balance the various interests at stake in a quasi-adversarial relationship between buyer and seller. We need leaders – specifically business leaders – to teach us those things. So: Ethics must come from the top down.

The second grand lesson is this:

2) Ethics cannot come from the top down. It cannot be imposed. You need buy-in. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. You can hand every employee a copy of “their” brand-new code of ethics, commissioned by HR and endorsed by the CEO and the Board. But that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will read it, let alone take it to heart. A code won’t overcome an organizational culture that puts short-term profit-seeking above all else; or a culture where individuals put moral blinders on, focusing narrowly on their own jobs rather than taking responsibility for the ethically-significant elements of the organization’s mission. It won’t make up for a culture that tacitly endorses playing fast and loose with accounting rules. That’s why tone – not just sermons handed down from on high – is so important.

A focus on tone can of course easily become confused with a focus on words, and on the personal integrity that a leader takes him- or herself to have. We see this all the time. When the mayor of a major city prides himself on integrity, on wanting to “clean up City Hall” and to put an end to the “gravy train,” but then cannot recognize a blatant conflict of interest when he sees one, you see “tone at the top” gone awry.

In my next blog entry, I’ll continue this topic by addressing what it means to focus on “tone at the top” and whether it can ensure or at least contribute to success.

The Business Significance of the ‘Trolley Problem’

streetcarThere’s a famous philosophical thought experiment known as “the Trolley Problem.” It goes roughly like this. Imagine one day you see a trolley — the famous San Francisco variety, or something more like a Toronto streetcar — hurtling along its track. The driver is incapacitated, and the trolley is bearing down on 5 people, mysteriously unconscious on the track. You happen to be standing next to a switch, which can divert the trolley onto a different track. But lying on this other track is another unconscious person.

So assuming (as the philosophy professor insists you must) that you don’t have time to haul any of the various unconscious persons off the tracks, your choice is effectively this: should you divert the trolley, thereby killing one person, or do nothing, and allow 5 people to die?

The puzzle is intended to get you to think about what’s more important: promoting good outcomes (fewer deaths instead of more) or sticking to cherished principles (like the principle that you should not cause the death of an innocent person). It makes for a fun and often fruitful classroom discussion.

But as a model of real-life ethical decision-making, the trolley problem is pretty bad. Seldom does life present you with two cut-and-dried options, neatly packaged by your philosophy professor. As Caroline Whitbeck points out, real life isn’t a multiple-choice test. In real life — in business, for example — ethical problem solving is more like a design problem: you need to design the options, before you get to choose among them.

But the trolley problem can still serve as a useful starting point for talking about business ethics. The key is to ask the right questions. Here are a handful of questions designed to make the trolley problem relevant to business ethics. Each, of course, requires a bit of mental translation. We are not, after all, primarily interested in actual trolleys.

1) Does your business need a policy for situations like this? Is your business one in which trolley-problem-like dilemmas come up often? Are employees often faced with situations that require them to trade off outcomes against principles? If so, do existing policies tell them how to deal with such dilemmas appropriately?

2) Is there anything you can do to prevent situations like this from happening in the first place? One of the key characteristics of the trolley problem is that it’s a lose-lose situation: either you kill an innocent person, or you allow several people to die. It’s worth asking (especially if such problems are common; see #1 above) whether there’s something you can do to avoid such situations so that you don’t have to deal with them at all.

3) What kind of corporate culture have you fostered, and how will that culture push people one way or the other in such situations? The trolley problem is a true dilemma, and reasonable people can disagree about it. But what about situations in which you can throw a switch and kill 5 people (metaphorically, at least) in order to save one? And what if that one isn’t a person, but is your company’s bottom line? Will your company’s culture encourage employees to put short-term profit ahead of all other considerations

4) Will people in your organization recognize situations akin to the trolley problem as being ethical problems in the first place? Or will they make the decision on purely technical grounds? Will they see past the fact that flipping switches is, you know, their job? Or past the fact that hey, the trolley has to run on time, and we always flip this switch that way at this time of day?

5) Finally, if the decision were being made by a team, or members of a hierarchy, rather than by an individual, would members feel empowered to speak their mind if they felt the team, or their boss, was making a bad decision?

Philosophical puzzles like the trolley problem become famous for a reason. They get at something deep. And they can provide fruitful fodder for discussion as part of corporate ethics training. The core of a great discussion is there: you’ve just got to know the right questions to ask.

Ethics Lessons from Toronto Mayor’s Ouster from Office

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and will be removed from office. The much-anticipated court decision was handed down this morning.

Regrettably, this is unlikely the end of the story. Ford had announced, prior to the decision, his intention to run again should the judge remove him from office. The judge had the option to include, as part of Ford’s sentence, a prohibition on running again, but opted not to do so.

Ford has plenty of detractors. Some don’t like his politics. Some question his aptitude for the job of mayor of Canada’s largest city. Others worry about his being implicated not just in one but in a string of conflict of interest violations. But he also has plenty of defenders — after all, there are an awful lot of people out there who voted for him, and many of them are sticking to their guns on that choice. So the debate will rage. Plenty of ink is sure to be spilled in by both camps in the wake of this decision. I’ll limit myself here to just two quick points. One is about leadership, and the other is about governance.

First, leadership. Whatever your views of Ford, and whatever your views about the severity of his breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, you pretty much have to agree that Ford demonstrated a disappointing lack of leadership ethics, here. Yes (as his lawyer pointed out) people do make mistakes, and even a mayor can be forgiven for an incidental breach of a rule now and then. But what’s particularly worrisome here is that Ford, who by all rights ought to be the guy who leads Council in understanding its ethical obligations, seems to be utterly clueless about them. And he doesn’t seem terribly worried about that, either. According to a report of the court proceedings, Ford “testified he never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the councillor orientation handbook. Nor did he attend councillor training sessions that covered conflicts of interest.”

My second point has to do with governance. As Marcus Gee pointed out in the Globe and Mail recently, bumping Ford from office might be a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ Turmoil is likely to ensue. Council is now faced with the choice of having someone else — someone not elected to be mayor — serve out the rest of Ford’s term, or spending several million dollars of taxpayer money to hold another election. The result of turfing Ford seems especially troubling when we compare Ford’s ethical cluelessness with the out-and-out corruption that has brought down mayors in other major cities.

But what was the alternative? A judge has no choice but to call ‘em like he sees ‘em. Ford violated important rules, and those rules say he should be removed from office. Note that the judge in this case would have had the same range of sentencing options if the dollar amount at the heart of this case had been $3.15 rather than $3,150. A more sane system would perhaps allow for a broader range of penalties. Examples could be found in other systems and at other levels of government. A fine? Censure? Limitation of future mayoral discretion? Mandatory ethics training? I don’t know the answer. But a governance system that allows a political leader to blunder this way and then throws a city into turmoil is not a good system. Principles matter, but so does the way we implement them.

Hockey’s Ken Dryden on Business Ethics

OK, so hockey legend Ken Dryden’s recent editorial, “The anatomy of three hits”, technically wasn’t about business ethics, but about the ethics of that business known as “hockey.” But you could essentially take the entire essay, substitute suitable examples from the history of business ethics, and the fundamental lessons would be the same.

Dryden’s basic point is about the nature of adversarial contexts. Hockey, like commerce, is a fundamentally adversarial context that also happens to be socially beneficial. That is, the rest of society benefits from the fact that both hockey players and business executives regard the other team as “the enemy,” and try their best to outdo them. Try, that is, within certain limits.

The hockey player, you see, is, like the business executive, subject to a strong duty of loyalty. The hockey player has a duty of loyalty to his team. The executive has a duty of loyalty to the corporation. But in both cases loyalty has its limits. Even the toughest of hockey’s tough guys know that.

These few sentences of Dryden’s, about tough-but-fair hockey players, sum up everything you need to know about the honourable business executive:

Players commit themselves to their teammates and to their teams. It’s what they love about their teammates, and what their teammates love about them. It’s what the fans love about them too. If these players are asked to do more, they will do more. Yet something keeps them from committing to what they shouldn’t commit.

That “something” is this: an understanding that despite the adversarial context in which they play, they are still human beings, as are their opponents.

Or at least, says Dryden, that’s how things generally have been in the world of professional hockey. But there are worrisome signs, of late, that the frequency and severity of dirty hits is ramping up. Here, the analogy continues: many people believe that bad behaviour in business is on the rise. Is there a role for enforcement here, to push behaviour back into line? Sure, says Dryden, but such external incentives can only go so far. What’s essential, then, both in hockey and in business, is that the players understand, and internalize, a basic respect for each other, and for the game.

Must the Captain Go Down With His Ship?

Italian cruise-ship Captain Francesco Schettino is in jail, following an incident that left 6 dead and (at present) 29 missing. Among the accusations levied against is that he fled the foundering vessel before it was empty. (According to maritime law, a captain doesn’t literally have to “go down with the ship,” but he or she is supposed to be the last one off after ensuring the safety of others.)

Legal requirements aside, is there an ethical obligation for a captain to risk life and limb to stay on board until the last passenger and crewmembers are off? The answer is pretty clearly “yes.” Like many jobs, the job of captaining a ship comes with a range of risks and benefits. As long as the risks were understood when the job was taken on, you’re obligated to follow through.

There’s a more general point to be made here about the nature of ethics, and about ethics education and training.

Ethics often requires of us actions that we’d rather not carry out. You should tell the truth, even when it would be more convenient not to. You should keep your promises, even when breaking them would be more profitable. This is necessarily the case: if ethics only ever required you to do things you already wanted to do, there’d be no need for ethical rules (or at least no need to think of them as rules in the prescriptive sense).

But there’s at least a superficial tension, here, with the idea that ethics should be useful. After all, if having and following an ethical code doesn’t benefit us in some way, why bother? Sure, it’s easy enough to say “The right thing to do is the right thing to do,” but a system of ethics needs some justification in terms of human well-being or it’s just not going to be very credible, not to mention stable. Indeed, some ethical systems are subject to serious criticism precisely because their implications for human well-being are negative. Yes yes, I understand that your code of honour requires you to kill the man who killed your brother, but don’t you see how crazy this all is?

So there’s got to be some connection between ethics and benefit. And it’s not enough to point to social benefit. After all, pointing out that the community benefits from me taking ethics seriously merely pushes the question of justification to a second level: why should I care about the good of the community, especially if doing so requires significant self-sacrifice?

None of this should engender skepticism or cynicism. It just means we need to think carefully about who benefits, and how, from a system of ethics.

It also means that we need to think about how we can help individuals keep the promises that it was in their interest, initially to make. Captain Schettino found it in his interest to make certain promises (albeit perhaps implicit ones) when he signed on to be captain of the Costa Concordia, but then all of a sudden found himself in a situation where it was not in his interest to keep that promise. Threats of punishment were understandably insufficient, here. Staying out of jail is no great incentive if you’re free-but-dead.

Organizations of all kinds — including especially corporations and professional associations — need to work hard to help members think of the relevant ethical rules as something more than the terms of a contract, to help members become the sorts of people who simply would never abandon ship when they are needed most.

Conflict of Interest: the SEC Doesn’t Get It

There are a few ways to interpret how the Securities and Exchange Commission handled a blatant conflict of interest on the part of one of its own lawyers, and none of them is particularly flattering.

If you don’t already know the story, see this Wall St. Journal editorial: The SEC’s Ethics: Washington’s double standard on conflicts of interest

…this week’s remarkable report from SEC Inspector General David Kotz disclosing how the SEC’s former top lawyer, David Becker, directly handled matters relating to the Madoff fraud case despite his mother’s $2 million investment with the firm, to which he and his brothers were heirs….

Despite a clear conflict, Mr. Becker didn’t recuse himself. He did (properly) report the conflict to his superior, Mary Schapiro, but she didn’t take the appropriate action in response.

How do we explain this failure? One possibility is that leadership of the Commission is clueless about what conflict of interest is. That seems unlikely; watching for conflict of interest at regulated companies is an important part of the Commission’s mandate.

Alternatively, it could be that this is a case of actual corruption (something not intrinsic to the notion of conflict of interest). That is, it’s possible that Becker was intentionally acting in a genuinely self-serving way, and that Schapiro was facilitating his attempt to do so. But there’s no evidence of that as far as I can see, and making that assumption is neither charitable nor consistent with our best understanding of what motivates wrongdoing. Self-serving rationalizations are much more commonly the mechanism behind wrongdoing than is actual pursuit of personal gain. So I’m willing to assume that Becker and Schapiro genuinely thought there was no real problem, that Becker was technically in a conflict, but that that conflict wouldn’t actually affect his ability to make the right decisions.

More likely, it seems to me, is that Becker and Schapiro, while understanding what conflict of interest is, how it is defined, etc., don’t really get the moral significance of the concept. They don’t see that conflict of interest isn’t about some personal interest actually having an influence on the integrity of the decision-maker. They don’t see that avoiding conflict of interest is about avoiding the shadow of doubt, a shadow that reduces people’s trust in the organization as a whole.

This sort of misunderstanding is alarmingly common in institutions that treat ethics as an administrative function. They focus on the rules, and on the processes and procedures that need to be built in order to enforce the rules. But too often, then forget why the rules are there in the first place.
——
Notice / Correction: The first version of this blog entry had a serious, repeat typo, wrongly implying that Mr Kotz, rather than Mr. Becker, was the one in the conflict. I’ve fixed that sloppy error above. My apologies for any confusion.

Yes, there is such a thing as business ethics

Marketing guru (blogger, author, etc.) Seth Godin posted a provocative blog entry called, “No such thing as business ethics”, in which he worries that the focus on “business ethics and corporate social responsibility” is distracting us from questions of personal responsibility:

It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially….

Now I could quibble with Godin’s definition of ethics, which is actually a particular controversial view about what ethics requires, rather than a definition. But instead I’m going to take issue with Godin’s claim that all that matters in business is personal ethics, rather than organizational ethics. Godin writes:

I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Corporations are collections of people, and we ought to insist that those people (that would be us) do the right thing. Business is too powerful for us to leave our humanity at the door of the office. It’s not business, it’s personal.

Godin’s claim that “it’s not business, it’s personal” is problematic in two ways. First, it wrongly implies that business ethics somehow misses out on the whole personal integrity thing. That’s entirely false. Both the academic literature on business ethics and the “ethics and values” programs set up by individual companies put a lot of emphasis on individuals adopting the right values and making good decisions. Secondly, contrary to what Godin implies, individual ethics clearly is not enough. For one thing, people embedded in organizations have obligations that are role-specific. Just as lawyers and doctors have special duties that go along with their roles — they have to follow not just their own consciences, but also highly specific professional codes — so do people in the world of business. And for another thing, organizations can be set up badly such that all kinds of “good” individual decisions can still lead to problematic outcomes. The ethics of the organization, per se, matters a lot.

Interestingly, Godin tells us that he learned about all this from his dad. Unfortunately, while the homely lessons we learned at our parents’ knees tend to give us a good start in life, complex institutional settings tend to bring more complex duties, and hence require more complex principles.

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