Archive for the ‘conflict of interest’ Category

Making Sense of Tone at the Top

In my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. I began by exploring just what we mean by ‘tone” in this context, and what kinds of activities and behaviours by leaders should be seen as constituting setting the right tone.

Next, what does it mean to focus on tone specifically at the top?

The “top” can’t be thought to mean the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever is at the top, for you, ethically: whomever you regard as a moral leader. Because leadership isn’t a job title. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.

So let’s talk for a moment about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also the tone at the middle. Average tenure of a CEO these days is, what, 4 or 5 years? This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every 4 to 5 years. But lower down, every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently.

And from the point of view of ethics, that has to be important. Don’t forget, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. For them, someone in middle management is effectively “the top” – the top of the relevant chain of command. So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.

Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?

“Success” here has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules. Success in this regard means achieving a reasonable level of compliance with not just the letter but also with the spirit of the law, and with the unwritten rules of the game, and with reasonable social expectations.

Now, no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or expect that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations, meeting the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product, it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.

A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.

Toronto Mayor Ford Keeps Job, But Far from Vindicated

Toronto mayor Rob Ford will apparently be keeping his job. An appeals court has overturned a previous court decision that had said that Ford had violated the province’s conflict of interest law.

The decision came down today from the Divisional Court which heard Ford’s appeal of his November conviction. The panel of three judges has now concluded that the original trial judge had made an error in finding Ford guilty under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

Many Torontonians were bewildered by the original verdict, and by the fact that it could result (as required by the Act) in Ford’s removal from office and a multi-million dollar by-election. Ford’s offence, after all, was hardly armed robbery. He was merely accused of participating in a city council vote on a relatively small financial matter. The question under consideration at that vote was whether he, Ford, should return a few thousand dollars’ worth of donations that the city’s integrity commissioner says were improperly gathered. So it’s not as if Ford had stolen the money, or embezzled it. And garnering the donations was not itself a legal offence. The problem lay solely in his having voted on this matter, a matter in which he had a personal stake. Many people wondered how it could be that Toronto could lose its duly elected mayor over such a small procedural matter.

But bewilderment about that initial verdict says more about public understanding of conflict of interest than it does about the substance of this case. Conflict of interest isn’t about numbers; it’s about loyalty. And when we think someone has violated a conflict of interest rule it’s not necessarily because we think he or she has made an improper decision, but rather that we think he or she has failed to keep personal business and official duties separate, and that as a result we cannot be sure about what factors may have influenced that decision. It is also, in the end, about public faith in the decision-making processes of our most important institutions.

Be that as it may, today’s decision means that Ford is not guilty of violating the Act, and hence gets to keep his job. My non-lawyer’s understanding of the verdict is this. The decision seems to turn on a technicality. Ford had been accused of wrongfully participating in a February 2012 debate and vote by Toronto city council over whether he, Ford, should return the improperly-gathered donations. A council vote 2 years earlier had required Ford to pay back that money. But, according to today’s ruling, Council didn’t have the authority to engage in that earlier vote. So it was legally null – effectively, it never happened at all, from a legal point of view. And if the earlier vote “didn’t happen,” then the February 2012 vote that essentially responded to that earlier vote was really moot. And if that vote was moot, it cannot have been improper for Ford to participate.

But the court’s decision today is far from a vindication. Ford keeps his job on a legal technicality, the sort of thing that a layperson could never foresee from a reading of the plain wording of the relatively brief and clear Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

That’s fair enough, from a procedural point of view, but it doesn’t mean that the mayor didn’t do anything wrong. He still took part in a decision in which he had a personal stake. And as a man in a position of power and trust, he not only should not have done so, but he should have known better than to do so. Even if he knew in his heart that his vote in the matter was unbiased, he should have known that that’s beside the point. What matters is that trust in the system requires decision makers to remove themselves from decisions that pertain to their own affairs. Doing so is essential for maintaining public trust in the system.

We can only hope that Ford will proceed now with uncharacteristic humility, and with more eagerness to learn the rules that govern his position than he has thus far demonstrated.

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.

The True Cost of Conflict of Interest

What does conflict of interest cost?

It was recently reported that certain employees of the Chicago Public Schools food services department were going to be required to undergo ethics training, after it was revealed that they had accepted improper gifts from contractors.

The worry, naturally, is that accepting gifts put those CPS employees into a conflict of interest, a situation in which they were trusted to make good decisions on behalf of CPS, but in which they had an ‘outside’ interest — in this case, gratitude to the gift-givers — that might reasonably be thought likely to warp their judgment. The behaviour here was more specifically a violation of the section of the CPS Code of Ethics that specifically forbids accepting gifts, but the moral root of the problem is conflict of interest.

Now, in addition to the trouble the employees are in, it’s been reported that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to go after two food services companies that had given improper gifts.

Just what have those companies done wrong? What’s wrong with putting someone else in a conflict of interest? I’ve argued before that we might think of this as analogous to suborning perjury. When you intentionally put someone else in a conflict of interest, it means that even if you’re not violating any duties yourself, you’re encouraging other people to violate their duties.

And the companies’ bad behaviour, here, is going to cost them. It may well cost them future contracts, but it may cost them (and other companies that want to compete for CPS contracts) more than that. It’s been reported that they may be required to provide ethics training for their employees, and hire an independent auditor to make sure they’re complying with CPS ethics standards. Neither of those things is likely to be cheap. In an industry with narrow profit margins, such additional costs could well mean the difference between black ink and red.

But the most important “cost” in this case is, of course, the loss of confidence in the CPS and its purchasing procedures. That is always the risk with conflict of interest, namely that when conflicts are accepted and fostered, rather avoided or remedied, they erode confidence in the judgment not just of individuals, but of entire institutions.

Insider Trading and Market Integrity

Cheng Yi Liang, a chemist for the US Food and Drug Administration, has been found guilty of Insider Trading and sentenced to 5 years in prison. (I first blogged about this case back in March, when Liang was arrested.)

As it happens, the Liang verdict dovetailed nicely with the topic covered yesterday in the Management Ethics class I teach at the Ted Rogers School of Management. The class was led by a terrific guest speaker, compliance consultant and retired RBC compliance officer Georges Dessaulles.

The Liang case serves as a great example of one of the points Georges emphasized in his presentation, namely that when it comes to Insider Trading, highly-placed executives are far from the only concern. In the Freeport McMoran case in the mid-90′s, for example, the central figure was a consulting geologist, not an employee of the mining company itself. In the 2001 case related to Nortel’s acquisition of Clarify, the central figure was an executive working at a public relations firm that had a contract with Clarify. And now, in the Liang case, the guilty party not only didn’t work for the company in question, he didn’t have any contractual or other financial relationship with the company. Instead, he was a scientist at a regulatory agency. Other cases have involved administrative assistants, or even employees at companies printing corporate reports.

This highlights an important point about the ethics of insider trading. The stereotypical cases of insider trading involve executives, making use of undisclosed knowledge to gain an unfair advantage over outsiders in buying or selling stock. In taking unfair advantage, executives not only perpetrate a basic injustice, but also violate their duties to shareholders. But the kinds of cases cited above point to a different reason for the wrongness of insider trading. In the Freeport and Nortel cases, and now in the FDA case, the central figure wasn’t someone with direct obligations to corporate shareholders. There was thus no breach of fiduciary duty (at least not in the usual sense). What’s really at stake, in such cases, is the undermining of the basic principle of free-and-voluntary exchange on which the a free-market economy is based.

The challenge for organizations is to make sure that employees and contractors with access to sensitive information understand the definition of — and penalties for — insider trading. But that’s a serious challenge, especially at big companies. Better still would be for more people to understand the moral underpinnings of free markets quite generally, and to have the moral reasoning skills to figure out the rest from there.

The Social Responsibilities of Lawyers

If there’s serious academic topic and social issue that might generate more stupid jokes than Business Ethics, it’s Legal Ethics. Which is too bad, since it’s an important topic. And that’s the topic raised by a recent story in the Boston Globe about lawyers who specialize in defending drivers accused of drunk driving.

Anyone with a broad interest in business ethics is almost inevitably going to run into questions of legal ethics, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that many corporations employ lawyers, and so businesses have to know about the ethical constraints on these very special employees. The other reason is that lawyers who don’t work for big companies are, themselves, either partners in law firms or owners of their own small businesses. And whether you work for a business or run one, questions arise regarding the intersection of, and perhaps conflict between, legal ethics on one hand and business ethics on the other.

One of the crucial ethical question that must inevitably arise for lawyers is this: what are a lawyer’s social responsibilities? In other words, what are a lawyer’s obligations to the society she lives in, while she goes about trying to ply her trade and make a living?

There’s a very strong argument to be made to the effect that the key way in which lawyers serve society — their key social responsibility — is by serving their clients well. Ours is an adversarial legal system, under which all parties to a dispute are entitled to legal representation. A key presumption of the system is that we are most likely to arrive at a just outcome if all parties to the dispute are represented by lawyers who vigourously pursue their clients’ interest. So the morality of whole system effectively stands or falls with the practice of zealous advocacy. We can never be 100% confident in the outcome of a trial, perhaps, but at least we know each side had its bulldog.

Now, it’s widely recognized among legal scholars that there are limits to zealous advocacy. Lawyers are forbidden from directly breaking the law in attempting to help their clients, and from derailing the court’s processes by, for example, suborning perjury or destroying evidence. But beyond that, lawyers are entitled — indeed, required — to do their damnedest.

Yale legal scholar Robert W Gordon wrote a nice piece a few years back called “Why Lawyers Can’t Just Be Hired Guns.” Gordon’s basic argument is essentially that lawyers play too important a role in modern society for them to think of themselves as solely beholden to their clients. In particular, Gordon argues that a lawyer’s right to engage in zealous advocacy only makes sense to the extent that lawyers also help support the system within which such advocacy ends up being constructive:

…lawyers’ work on behalf of clients positively requires—both for its justification and its successful functioning for the benefit of those same clients in the long run—that lawyers also help maintain and refresh the public sphere, the infrastructure of law and cultural convention that constitutes the cement of society.

(You’ll find Goron’s piece in a very good book called Ethics in Practice: Lawyers’ Roles, Responsibilities, and Regulation, edited by Deborah L. Rhode.)

It’s worth noting that Gordon’s argument about social responsibility is essentially an argument about the limits that apply to the fundamental moral obligation that lawyers have to faithfully play their role in the larger legal system. And it’s equally worth noting that that obligation cannot be described without reference to that system, and to the role we want lawyers to play within it.

There’s a general lesson, here. We shouldn’t think of ethics strictly in terms of the human micro-implications of a particular situation. We need also to look carefully at the roles individuals play in important social structures, and the roles those structures play in society as a whole.

Toronto’s Mayor in Pocket-Sized Conflict of Interest

The Toronto Star recently reported that the city’s beleaguered Mayor, Rob Ford has stumbled yet again. The Mayor, it seems, opted not to use the city’s standard (cheap) method of having business cards printed. He opted, instead, to go his own route. That might not be surprising a surprising move, coming from a maverick mayor, except for two facts. One is that his way cost a fair bit more. The other is that his way meant giving the contract to his own family’s printing business.

Three additional points are worth making.

First, this is an actual, bona fide conflict of interest. The Star reports City Councillor Josh Matlow as being critical of Ford’s decision, and wondering if the decision carried the risk of “a perceived conflict of interest”. Perhaps Matlow was pulling his punches, attempting to be collegial. But the term “perceived conflict of interest” is properly reserved for situations in which the concerned observers might understandably but wrongly think that the decision-maker had an external interest that could have influenced his decision-making, perhaps because outsiders are misinformed about who was responsible for what decisions.

Second, as always, it’s important to differentiate conflict of interest from corruption. The term “corruption” implies a level of intentionality not required to establish conflict of interest. You can be in a conflict of interest through no fault of your own. Whether there was fault, in the present case, is for voters (and quite possibly the city’s city’s integrity commissioner) to decide.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the dollar amounts here are pretty small. The total cost of the business cards Ford ordered is just a tad over $1500. Compared to the city’s budget, or even just the budget for the Mayor’s Office, that’s pocket change. But one thing that corruption and conflict of interest share in common is that size isn’t always the issue. What’s at issue in conflict of interest is the need to protect the integrity of the institution, and in particular the way key stakeholders perceive its decision-making processes. Whether in business or in public office, it is crucial not just that top executives make the right decisions, but that they be seen as making decisions on the right basis.

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.

Highest Standards Aren’t Always Best in Ethics

No one wants low ethical standards, but it’s also a mistake to aim at the highest possible standards — at least it can be, depending on what you mean by “highest.”

See, for example, this useful piece on defence contractors, by Noah Shachtman for Wired: Pentagon Probe Will Review Every Darpa Contract

Since Regina Dugan became the director of Darpa [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Pentagon’s top research division has signed millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with her family firm, which in turn owes her at least a quarter-million dollars. It’s an arrangement that has raised eyebrows in the research community, and has now drawn the attention of the Defense Department’s internal auditors and investigators…

The story usefully points out that aiming for the highest possible standards of integrity can also cause trouble:

[A former director's] bright ethical guidelines had unintended consequences. If a company allowed an employee to take a sabbatical to join Darpa, the firm was essentially blocking itself from millions of dollars in agency research projects.

The result, of course, is that under the old rules the agency risked cutting off useful sources of expertise. That’s not to say that the old rules were worse. It’s just to point out that there’s a legitimate trade-off here.

There’s a very general lesson to be drawn from this. When thinking about ethics, the goal isn’t always to be squeaky-clean. The goal is to find standards that are high enough to merit the trust of relevant stakeholders, and to do so without sacrificing other, possibly-equally important, values.

Consider this graphic, which illustrates the challenge of choosing experts to make decisions. On one hand, we want people with real expertise. On the other hand, we want to avoid conflict of interest. That is, we want maximum expertise and minimal risk of bias. So the upper-left quadrant of this graphic is the sweet spot:

conflict of interest: bias and expertise

Note that what we’re looking for here is not the “highest possible” standard of integrity (i.e., the standard that implies the lowest possible risk of bias among decision-makers), but a system that makes the optimal tradeoff between risk of bias, on one hand, and relevant expertise, on the other. The point here is not that we’re trading off ethics and expediency. The point is that we’re trading off competing, ethically-significant values.

The point in thinking about ethics is not to aim at the highest standards, but at the best standards. We do enormous damage both to the functioning of organizations and to people’s willingness to talk openly about ethics when we talk about “high standards” in a way that comes off as unthinkingly pious.

Conflict of Interest for Mayors (and Other Committee Chairs)

This is a blog entry ostensibly about municipal politics, but with real lessons for the world of business.

I was on CBC radio yesterday (along with corporate governance expert Prof. Richard Lelblanc) to talk about conflict of interest case involving Halifax’s city council (technical the Council for Halifax Regional Municipality).

To make a long story short: the Mayor was involved in some financial irregularities that may (I honestly don’t know) just be a matter of either poor judgment or poor understanding of proper procedures. Whatever. The interesting part came when some members of Council wanted to reprimand the Mayor for his role in those decisions. The Mayor insisted on chairing the discussion, and indeed even voted on the matter when it came up for a vote. (Here’s an article about the fiasco, by Michael Lightstone for the Chronicle Herald: Halifax council won’t suspend mayor.)

Needless to say, in participating in the vote over his own fate, the Mayor was in a rather significant conflict of interest. He had an official duty to exercise, one that required the exercise of judgment. And he clearly also had a very significant personal interest in the matter, one that any reasonable outsider would be justified in suspecting of influencing the Mayor’s judgment.

Now it always bears repeating: conflict of interest is not an accusation. It is a situation one finds oneself in. There’s nothing unethical about being in a conflict of interest. (If a lawyer finds out that one of her clients wants to sue another of her clients, she is in a conflict of interest, through absolutely no fault of her own.) What matters is how you deal with the conflict.

The best thing for the Mayor to do would have been to:

  • recognize the conflict,
  • put it on the table, and
  • recuse himself (i.e., hand over the gavel, decline to vote, and preferably leave the room so that the rest of Council could have a full and frank discussion).

What’s really at stake in conflict of interest has very little to do with the integrity of individuals. Rather, it has to do with the integrity of a decision-making process, and of an institution. So the worry is not that the Mayor would necessarily have been biased in how he chaired Council that evening. Maybe he bent over backwards to be fair in his chairing duties. Who knows? And that’s the point. We don’t know, but for important institutions we need a high level of certainty that key decision-makers are exercising their judgment in the interests of those they serve, rather than themselves.

And there, of course, is the lesson for the world of business, and in particular for corporate governance. A Mayor, effectively, is the CEO of a City. In addition, he or she also is “chair of the board of directors,” where the board here is City Council. In the world of municipal politics, it is relatively rare for Council (normally chaired by the Mayor) to sit in judgment of the Mayor as chief executive. But in the corporate world, such judgment is a big part of the job of a board of directors. And that is precisely why it is widely considered “best practice” for the CEO not to also serve as Chair. One of the Board’s key roles is to advise and oversee the CEO. Doing so requires that the Board be able to deliberate in a way that is reasonably independent from the CEO’s own influence. Any organization that has the CEO act as chair of the very body that must regularly deliberate over his or her own performance is not just “finding” itself faced by a conflict of interest, but is actively constructing one.

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