Security Contractor Boosts “Ethics Practices”

One of the interesting developments in business ethics over the last few years is the proliferation of senior positions, at major corporations, with the word “ethics” in their titles. (The people filling those positions even have their own association: the Ethics & Compliance Officer Association.) One one hand, it’s good to see senior positions dedicated to ethics. On the other hand, the obvious risk is that ethics becomes ghettoized, relegated to one department that’s now expected to “take care of”, you know, “that ethics thing.”

Case in point: this story, from the Washington Post: Amid Reviews, DynCorp Bolsters Ethics Practices

DynCorp International, a major government security contractor, is strengthening its ethics practices in the wake of government investigations of its programs in Afghanistan and other conflict zones.

In response to … incidents and because senior executives had been discussing such a move, DynCorp in May established a position of chief compliance officer with a specific focus on ethics, business conduct, related investigations and regulatory compliance, company spokesman Douglas Ebner said.

It’s certainly good to see a company with a billion-dollar-plus contract to train an entire nation’s police-force making a public commitment to acting ethically. That seems pretty important.

But, well, a couple of points. First, notice the reference to strengthening “ethics practices.” I don’t know if that phrase came from DynCorp itself, or is the journalist’s own turn of phrase, but it’s pretty cringe-worthy. Ethics is (very roughly) about figuring out the right thing to do, and ethical questions arise in all aspects of business. There are, I suppose, a few specific activities that can be thought of as especially ethics-related (such as training your staff about the corporate Code of Ethics). But is that really what the story is talking about? If DynCorp is really just talking about amending its policies and practices to make wrongdoing less likely, why not just say so?

See also this bit of ethics-slash-PR-speak from a company spokesman:

“We’re absolutely dedicated to a framework of governance and compliance that ensures a transparent and accountable business environment,” Ebner said. “Whether it’s misconduct, or public perception or allegations of misconduct, these can tarnish a company’s ability to work in challenging environments.”

Is anyone reassured by that? Should we be? As far as I can tell, the real message there is:

“Blah blah blah governance blah blah compliance blah blah blah transparent blah accountable….”

You can fill in just about any other words you want in between…it really doesn’t change the message. What matters from a PR point of view is the use of those key words. From an ethics point of view, all such a statement proves is that someone at DynCorp has done some basic homework on what the appropriate buzzwords are. But that, quite literally, is not saying much.

Interestingly, the article above doesn’t even mention DynCorp’s current Chief Compliance Officer, Curtis L. Schehr — who, for better or for worse, doesn’t have the word “ethics” in his title.

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