Ensuring Integrity in the Workplace

In my last column, I offered some interview questions that an in-house lawyer may ask a prospective employer in order to assess the organization's ethical culture. While the questions are best asked before you become affiliated with an organization, you may also use them at any time to perform an ethics health check at your current employer. I would like to revisit one of the questions in order to underscore the criticality of this exercise.

One of the proposed questions ("How does this company ensure that its employees act with integrity?") was designed to elicit information regarding the company's response to noncompliance. Ideally, the response should provide assurance that the company has developed and deployed consistent and durable processes to resolve noncompliance or integrity violations. These ethical commitments signal that the company doesn't cut corners.

Recently, a guest speaker at one of my staff meetings emphasized the necessity of determining whether a company quickly addresses ethical issues. This speaker had served for many years in a high-ranking government enforcement role. When asked if there were any common attributes of the companies that had been subject to legal proceedings over which she presided, she noted that a common finding was that the companies did not possess a culture of compliance, and often that culture was lost because ostensibly minor infractions were ignored. Her point was that she regularly witnessed larger compliance issues readily propagating within compromised ethics ecosystems. Of course, she was not suggesting that every ethical transgression requires termination. Some response, however, is required to send a message that the company's values are unassailable standards of conduct.

Questioning a company's ethical culture may be awkward and lead to difficult conversations; consider the temporary discomfort, however, an insurance policy on your career. Still, if you require some coaching, I recommend a terrific book titled Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.

If you are already employed and want to assess your company's ethical culture, numerous resources are available to you. The Compliance and Ethics Leadership Council of the Corporate Executive Board has developed a comprehensive survey it calls "Cultural Diagnostic." The survey is designed to "help companies assess their ethical culture and identify segments within their organization that present an increased susceptibility to misconduct." Moreover, the Ethisphere Institute recently launched its "Ethics Inside" Certification Program that examines 100 criteria to assess whether "ethical behavior is the core expectation, compliance controls respected, and productive innovation and communication propagated."

If you are looking for a way to frame your thoughts and discussions, I suggest you look at websites such as the Foundation for Financial Services Professionals and its American Business Ethics Award. The award "recognizes companies that exemplify high standards of ethical behavior in their everyday business conduct and/or in response to a specific ethical crisis or challenge." Nine criteria are identified as indicia of highly ethical companies. Use these criteria to perform a self-assessment of your company's ethical culture.

Whether you are seeking a job or already employed, assessing the company's commitment to compliance, values, integrity and ethics is critically important to assuring that you are betting your career on the right company, one that will keep you out of ethical quagmires. These are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

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