Wal-Mart Seeking Ethics Director

Working on the assumption that it’s never too late to ‘get out in front’, Wal-Mart is now advertising for a new director of global ethics. Here’s the full story: Wal-Mart: Desperately seeking ethics (by Matthew Boyle, for Fortune.com

That Wal-Mart (Research) needs to beef up its ethics organization is not too surprising. The Bentonville, Ark. behemoth has been bloodied on several fronts lately — an $11 billion class-action discrimination lawsuit, employee pay and health benefits, and former vice chairman Tom Coughlin’s alleged expense account padding have all provided ample fodder for the retailer’s growing chorus of critics.

The ethics director, once hired, will oversee a team of about ten staffers inside Wal-Mart’s Global Ethics Office, which the retailer created in 2004 to “advance the company’s ethical, values-based culture,” according to the job posting. The job spec also details a veritable laundry list of responsibilities, from developing a global ethics strategy to “policy refinement” to overseeing an ethics hotline, where employees can report violations of corporate policies.

So, Wal-Mart is catching up with the half of the Fortune 500 companies that already have ethics officers. (I read elsewhere that such a position has actually existed at Wal-Mart for years, but it was handled part-time by an executive with other duties.) Of course, having a ‘director of global ethics’ is one thing, but having the right person in the job and then making effective use of the position are different things entirely. On these issues, Boyle’s story has a couple of great quotes from experts:

Having a say in Wal-Mart’s corporate policies suggests that the position will be more than window dressing. “The key is not just to have the role, but what you do with it once you have it,” says Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

[T]he job will include “frequent and informal” interactions with senior corporate officers, “up to and including” CEO Lee Scott, according to the job spec. “You have to have the commitment of the CEO,” says [Andrew] Wicks [of the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics ]. “If not, this is just like the ethics code at Enron.”

(That last bit, of course, is a reference to Enron’s Code of Ethics…a document that, at 64 pages long, might seem impressive, but is actually a pretty bad document, and notoriously ineffectual.)

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